The UK on Friday justified its contentious plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to Rwanda as part of a “moral imperative” to tackle people traffickers operating in the English Channel.
Boris Johnson’s government has been criticised by opposition politicians and human rights experts for its plans to send asylum seekers 4,000 miles to Rwanda as part a of a new deterrent strategy to tackle people smuggling.
Ministers are braced for significant legal challenges. Tom Pursglove, minister for tackling illegal migration, acknowledged the plans would be “difficult” for the government to implement but argued there was a “moral imperative” to try to break the business model of people smuggling.
“What is cruel and inhumane is allowing evil criminal gangs to take advantage of people, to take their money, to put them in small boats, often with force, including women and children, to put them in the Channel with all the risks that that presents to human life,” he told ITV.
The cost of the scheme has been criticised. The UK has agreed to pay £120mn to Rwanda and is likely to incur other expenses. Johnson said on Thursday that tens of thousands of asylum seekers might be sent to third countries.
Pursglove said the scheme would save money in the “longer term” and it would fall within the UK’s legal obligations. “We are absolutely confident that our policies are in line with that and entirely compliant, which by extension would mean that those legal challenges would be without merit.”
But Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative former international development secretary, said the costs would be “eye-watering” and doubted whether the plans would be successful in deterring people smugglers.
“The government is quite rightly trying to break the smugglers’ sordid and deathly model, and so I am absolutely behind them in doing that. The problem with the scheme that they have announced is that I don’t think it will work,” he told the BBC.
“You’re going to send people 6,000 miles into central Africa — it looked when it was discussed in parliament before that it would actually be cheaper to put each asylum seeker in the Ritz hotel in London.”
Gillian Triggs, assistant secretary-general at the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, said that the body “strongly condemns outsourcing the primary responsibility to consider the refugee status.”
She told the BBC that the policy was a “troubling development”, particularly in light of the millions refugees fleeing Ukraine. When asked to compare Johnson’s policy to similar tactics used by Australia, she said, “Just as the Australian policy is an egregious breach of international law and refugee law and human rights law, so too is this proposal by the United Kingdom government.”
Triggs added: “It is very unusual, very few states have tried this, and the purpose is primarily deterrent — and it can be effective, I don’t think we’re denying that . . .[but] there are much more legally effective ways of achieving the same outcome.”
Downing Street hopes the first migrants will be sent to Rwanda “in weeks, or a small number of months”, according to Andrew Griffith, Number 10’s director of policy.
Along with the processing deal, the government has also put the Royal Navy in control of policing the Channel. The Ministry of Defence said 562 migrants had been detected in 14 boats on Thursday.