In an initial response, UNHCR spelled out that it was not a party to negotiations that have taken place between London and Kigali, which it is understood were part of an economic development partnership.
According to news reports, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has said the scheme costing around $160 million, would “save countless lives” from human trafficking, and the often treacherous water crossing between southern England and the French coast, known as the English Channel.
“UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, describing the arrangements as shifting asylum responsibilities and evading international obligations that are “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.”
Stand in solidarity
UNHCR urged both countries to re-think the scheme, warning that instead of deterring refugees from perilous journeys, the externalization arrangements would only magnify risks, causing refugees to seek alternative routes, and exacerbate pressures on frontline States migrants are seeking to pass through.
While Rwanda has for decades generously provided a safe haven to refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, the majority live in camps with limited access to economic opportunities.
UNHCR underscored that wealthier nations must show solidarity in supporting Rwanda and the refugees it already hosts, and not the other way around.
“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy,” underscored Ms. Triggs. “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing”.
UNHCR said in its statement that the UK has an obligation to ensure access for asylum seekers – integrating those deemed to be refugees and safely returning to their country of origin, people with no legal basis to stay.
However, Britain is instead adopting arrangements that abdicate responsibility to others, thus threatening the international refugee protection regime that has stood the test of time and saved millions of lives over the decades.
The UK has often supported UNHCR, providing important contributions that help protect refugees and support countries in conflicts, including Ukraine, the agency noted.
However, financial support abroad for certain refugee crises cannot replace the responsibility of States and the obligation to receive asylum seekers and protect refugees on their own territory – irrespective of race, nationality and mode of arrival, the UN agency stressed.
While UNHCR recognizes the challenges posed by forced displacement, it maintained that developed countries host only a fraction of the world’s refugees and have the capacity to manage asylum claims in a humane, fair and efficient manner.
No externalizing asylum
In the past, UNHCR has also spoken out against Australia’s migrant offshore processing policy, which involved redirecting people on the move to Nauru, a Pacific island, thousands of kilometres away.
UNHCR has made it clear it does not support the externalization of asylum by countries, including measures taken to transfer asylum-seekers and refugees to other nations, with insufficient safeguards to protect their rights, or where this leads to the shifting rather than the sharing of responsibilities to protect them.