A United Nations human rights expert has urged the United Kingdom to halt its controversial policy of transferring some asylum seekers to Rwanda and expressed serious concern that the two countries’ asylum partnership arrangement violates international law, and risks causing irreparable harm to those seeking international protection.
“There are serious risks that the international law principle of non-refoulement will be breached by forcibly transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda,” said Siobhán Mullally, the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons. Special Rapporteurs report to the Human Rights Council and operate in their individual capacity. They are not UN staff and are not paid for their work.
“People seeking international protection, fleeing conflict and persecution, have the right to seek and enjoy asylum – a fundamental tenet of international human rights and refugee law,” she said.
The Special Rapporteur welcomed urgent interim measures by the European Court of Human Rights that grounded a flight last week, due to transfer a small group of asylum seekers to the central African nation.
“Transferring asylum seekers to third countries does nothing to prevent or combat human trafficking, in fact it is likely to push desperate people into riskier and more dangerous situations,” Ms. Mullally said. “Rather than reducing trafficking in persons, it is likely to increase risks of exploitation.”
The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the arrangement fails to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers who are victims of trafficking and seeking protection in the United Kingdom. These victims and persons at risk of trafficking could be transferred under the arrangement, she said.
“There are inadequate safeguards to ensure that victims of trafficking or persons at risk of trafficking are identified, given assistance and ensured effective access to international protection. They risk further victimization and trauma by being transferred to a third country,” added the Special Rapporteur.
“I am also concerned that there are insufficient guarantees against risks of trafficking or re-trafficking for those who may be denied asylum, or arbitrarily removed to another state from Rwanda”.
Ms. Mullally echoed concerns by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees about difficulties that arise in disclosing traumatic experiences – such as trafficking – in screening interviews for asylum seekers, usually conducted shortly after arrival.
Under the arrangement, U.K. authorities will conduct an initial screening before deciding on whether an individual may be transferred. The independent expert said the initial screening was not sufficient to identify and recognize the specific protection needs of asylum seekers, including victims of trafficking.
The British government itself said last year that it was concerned by continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom in Rwanda.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) issued a statement in January 2021, which stil remains online at FCDO, recommending that Rwanda Conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture, and bring perpetrators to justice. It also called for the screening, identification and support of trafficking victims, including those held in Government transit centers.
An updated travel advisory for Rwanda appeared on the FCDO website today (June 21), which stated that “Rwanda is generally safe and crime levels are relatively low, but street crime does occur.”
The advisory added that the security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi remains unstable, and there have been armed attacks in Rwanda’s Nyungwe Forest and Volcanoes National Parks and neighboring areas. It also included the addition of information on an attack on a public passenger bus by suspected militants.
Despite its own statements and Ms. Mullally’s concerns, the U.K. remains resolute. Perhaps largely because it has already committed to a substantial initial payment to Rwanda to fund the resettlement program.
Following the grounding of last week’s flight to Rwanda, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel said the U.K. would not be deterred and would continue to progress its partnership with Rwanda.
The Home Office also reiterated its plans in a statement regarding the dangers of illegal migration.
“From 1 January 2022, you will be considered for relocation to Rwanda if you make an illegal journey to the U.K. and have traveled through or have a connection to a safe country,” the statement read.
“People relocated to Rwanda will have their asylum claim processed there. Rwanda will have full responsibility for them. People whose claims for protection are rejected will either be offered the chance to stay in Rwanda or return to their home country – they will not return to the U.K. once their claims have been decided by Rwanda.”
It concluded that there is “no limit to the number of people who can be relocated to Rwanda”.
Meanwhile, Ms. Mullally has urged States to expand pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration without discrimination, in order to combat trafficking in persons.
Resettlement programs, family reunification measures and provision of humanitarian visas were more effective ways to prevent trafficking of those fleeing persecution and conflict, the Special Rapporteur said.
She called on all States to uphold their international obligations regarding the principle of non-refoulement in international law, which guarantees that no person should be returned to a country where they could face irreparable harm.
“We must not allow the objective of combating human trafficking to be misused, in an attempt to undermine the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, and the principle of non-refoulement”, she concluded.