UK abandons refugees

by Chris Bertram on April 15, 2022

Yesterday was a terrible day for anyone seeking refuge in the United Kingdom, a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Obsessed by a small number of people arriving on its south coast from France, the UK government has signed a memorandum of association with Rwanda under which people deemed inadmissible to have their claim for asylum assessed by the UK will be transferred to Rwanda to be dealt with under the Rwandan refugee system. Boris Johnson, for whom this announcement conveniently deflects attention from a finding of criminality against him, expects that tens of thousands of people will be sent to Rwanda. One of the claims made in support of the deal is that Britain’s capacity is not unlimited, but the proposed solution is to dump people in a much smaller and poorer country.

As usual ministers are trumpeting the lie that the UK has a “proud record” of refugee protection, whereas in fact the UK takes a very small number of refugees compared to neighbouring countries such as France and Germany. The UK recently set up bespoke schemes for Ukrainians, Afghans and Hong Kong Chinese. Hardly any Ukrainians have arrived and many have faced formidable bureaucratic obstacles in getting a visa; Afghans cannot apply from Afghanistan and those that arrived in the evacuation following the fall of Kabul are now languishing in poor conditions in overcrowded hotels. As a performative measure to show how much he cared about Ukrainians, Johnson apppointed a new minister for refugees, whom he then neglected to inform about the deal with Rwanda.

One of the curious facts about the deal is that the legal powers to send people to Rwanda do not yet exist, since the government has yet to pass its controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, which keeps being amended in the House of Lords to remove some of its most objectionable features. [Update: the previous sentence may not be correct, according to legal twitter, since the government has already incorporated some of the necessary changes in the immigration rules, without scrutiny from MPs] Even if it does eventually pass this bill, the government faces the possibility of legal challenges under human rights legislation. Anticipating this, Johnson has already attacked “politically motivated lawyers”. (It is possible that the entire purpose of the proposal is, in fact, to stage a confrontation between the “people’s government” committed to post-Brexit border control and to portray liberals, human rights lawyers, NGOs and the like as the “enemy”.)

If the Nationality and Borders Bill does pass in the form that ministers want it to, then those seeking asylum will be divided into two categories. Those who arrived in the UK “legally” will be entitled to have their refugee claim assessed, those who come “illegally” will be deemed inadmissible and will be liable to deportation whence they came, or, if this proves impossible because the allegedly safe country through which they passed will not take them or they face persecution in their country of origin, they may be transferred to a third country. It turns out that this is to be Rwanda.

Is Rwanda a safe place to send refugees? It it a dictatorship in a country with a recent history of genocide, which practices torture, the arbitrary detention of political opponents, and the murder of opposition leaders. When Israel sent refugees to Rwanda they almost all left the country immediately to begin another long journey to seek refuge. Boris Johnson and his Home Secretary Priti Patel have made the risible claim that this agreement will break the business model of people smugglers and lead to fewer people taking dangerous journeys; the reality is that it will provide new opportunities for people smugglers to get people out of Rwanda. Truly a shameful episode.



Neville Morley 04.15.22 at 6:24 am

It’s an especially vicious Catch-22; the UK will gladly welcome all refugees who arrive legally, but since for a genuine refugee it’s almost impossible to get to the UK legally, they won’t have to accept anyone.


DavidMorrice 04.15.22 at 1:32 pm

This proposal is like the policy of nuclear deterrence: immoral, unjustifiably expensive and ultimately useless. If the Tory government really wishes to “break the business model of the people smugglers” it should provide safe (and free) transport across the channel for all asylum seekers (and then provide decent and safe accommodation for them whilst dealing speedily with their applications).


Raven Onthill 04.15.22 at 6:32 pm

The Tory government is monstrous.

Someone with the power to be heard and act ought to say it.


KT2 04.15.22 at 10:00 pm

+1 DavidMorrice

Would this bill even get past a draft without corporate news media? What is the effect of “news” coverage. Could the “free press” stop the Nationality and Borders Bill?

I’m lately of the opinion our media is the problem. Not Priti Patel & Boris.

Would your statement CB, – “(It is possible that the entire purpose of the proposal is, in fact, to stage a confrontation between the “people’s government” committed to post-Brexit border control and to portray liberals, human rights lawyers, NGOs and the like as the “enemy”.)”

… even been written if not for the “media”?


J-D 04.15.22 at 10:16 pm

I have always assumed that honesty with clients is not part of the business model of people smugglers and that it will therefore be unaffected by changes in government policies. As far as I have been able to tell, people who talk about breaking the business model of people smugglers (and it’s not the first time I’ve noticed such talk) are relying on underpants gnome logic.


Alan White 04.16.22 at 5:16 am

Apparently there is a Trumpish use for “shithole countries” after all. I have no adequate words for the revulsion I feel.


Stephen 04.16.22 at 4:50 pm

Question from a position of complete ignorance: if I am in a foreign country, and am (or realistically fear I may be about to be) persecuted there, how do I go about claiming asylum in the UK without using people smugglers to get me there illegally?

It must have been possible, I’ve known people who did it, but that was some time ago.


Robert Weston 04.16.22 at 7:05 pm

Apparently there is a Trumpish use for “shithole countries” after all.

Rwanda is hardly a “shithole” country in the eyes of the Western countries that let the genocide happen while they installed Paul Kagame in order to overthrow a French-backed regime in the 1990s. Since then, Kagame has gone to absurd lengths to repay the investment.

It’s not just that Kagame has done silly business like joining the Commonwealth or introducing cricket. It has to be said the ROI for Washington and London has been impressive: Rwanda reliably supports the U.S. and U.K. on major internal issues, votes with them at the U.N., lets it known it may move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem, and speaks the vocabulary the British and Americans like to hear: “good governance,” privatization and so forth. It also contributes to international peacekeeping forces and now takes in African refugees the Europeans would rather not have close to their borders. In return, the West is happy to lavish development aid to to point to presumably inflated growth statistics in order to depict Kagame as a model leader. It doesn’t matter that Kagame combines the brutality of Saddam Hussein and ruthless efficiency of the GDR. He’s in for the duration and the U.S. and U.K. will never abandon him.


Raven 04.16.22 at 9:31 pm

Echo to Alan White’s #6.

If people/leaders like Trump, Johnson, and Putin were all on some other world we could coldly and dispassionately observe, for the sake of (bad) example, without their behavior otherwise affecting us, what a splendid purpose they would serve!

Likewise if they were merely fictional characters on which we could close the book covers whenever we tired of them.

The only things really wrong with them are their being real, present in this world, and having power to affect the lives of (far too many) innocent others.

Mere bad character traits — even malignant sociopathy — make for good villains in fictional characters. As with real estate, the secret is location, location, location. (The book & movie Inkheart played with this.)


Chris Bertram 04.17.22 at 6:08 am

@Stephen there is basically no way to do so, and this has been true for many years. Here for example is a report of a Parliamentary answer from 20 years ago:

“Only a few days ago I put a question to the Minister [Lord Rooker, Minister of State, Home Office] asking whether there was a legal way in which an asylum seeker could enter this country. He gave me a very blunt answer – ‘No’.”
Lord Dholakia, House of Lords, 2002 (cited in Gibney, The Ethics and Politics of Asylum (2004), 107).


Matt 04.17.22 at 10:16 am

Chris – can I get you to expand on that a bit? I assume you mean a person who cannot otherwise get a visa and who wants to travel to and enter the UK for the purpose of applying for asylum. Is that right? If that’s what you have in mind then I think that’s probably the correct answer. For Australia, though, a fair number of people do travel here, enter “legally”, and then apply for asylum – people who have a tourist visa (or who are able to travel on an “electronic travel authority”), or a student visa, or some other visa. Such people sometimes apply for asylum almost immediately after entering. If they enter on a valid visa, they are eligible for a “normal” protection visa – one that grants them permanent residence, the right to apply for citizenship in four years (like anyone else w/ permanent residence) and to bring in family members (though the visa numbers for this are not especially generous.) On the other hand, people who arrive by plane w/o a valid visa are only eligible for a less generous visa that lasts only 3 or 5 years, doesn’t lead to permanent residence (and so not to citizenship), must be renewed under the same standard at the expiration, and doesn’t allow for family reunification. But, they are still allowed in. “Unauthorized maritime arrivals”, on the other hand, are treated even worse – they are the ones subjected to “off-shore processing” and (officially) barred from entry to Australia (though in practice this has often happened.)

I assume, but don’t know, that someone who has or can get a valid visa can travel to the UK and then apply for asylum. Is that right? (No doubt that’s not an especially large number of people.) I ask because, even though I know the migration rules of a couple countries pretty well, and some others somewhat, I often find these discussions confusing and unclear, and assume others do, too, so am glad when people who know can make the rules as clear as possible.


Stephen 04.17.22 at 3:15 pm

CB@10: thank you for your prompt reply to my query. You quote Lord Dholakia as saying in 2002 in a House of Lords debate, or being later cited by Gibney as having said, that there is no legal way for an asylum seeker to enter this country.

That is of course utterly appalling. I wondered in what context he could have said it. Hansard covers the House of Lords debates very thoroughly, and there is a good search facility for the digitised on-line version. However, I could find no record of Lord Dhokalia having said the words attributed to him. Maybe the search facility is erratic, maybe I was not using it properly; or otherwise, this would not be the first time words used by a primary source have become distorted by a secondary source.

Looking for further information, I came across an informative website,, which offers comprehensive information to would-be asylum seekers, and is obviously on their side. It says, among other things:

“Because there is no formal visa to claim asylum, people get to the UK how they can. Some people enter the UK legally, using their passport and maybe a visa for entry to the UK for some other purpose. Other people are not able to do this, and have to enter the country illegally.”

It does seem to me that they consider it possible for legal entrants to the UK to legally claim asylum, as of course they ought to.

Incidentally, my search for Lord Dholakia’s views on asylum turned up a debate (Hansard, Lords, vol 739, 19 July 2012) indicating that his views may not be entirely congruent with CB’s. “I have said before that all political parties subscribe to a fair immigration policy and fair procedures. This has never been in dispute. The policy is to admit those who are eligible and to exclude or—subject to the appropriate humanitarian principles—remove those who are not … The problem the UKBA faces is very simple. The need to exclude those who are ineligible means that checks have to be made to determine who is eligible and who is not.”

And later: “We do not condone illegal immigration. Nor do we condone the entry of those who do not qualify to be here. I suspect that genuine refugees seeking admission under the UN convention are few, and the sooner reliable statistics are produced, the better it will be for building a cohesive society here.”

In the same debate, Lord Avebury – a man of impeccable liberal views – said “There are more than 150,000 people, including 3,900 criminals, who have been refused an extension of stay but whose whereabouts are unknown. Nor is there a strategic plan to manage these cases.”

I think we can agree that the asylum system urgently needs improvement.


Chris Bertram 04.17.22 at 8:13 pm

@Matt @Stephen I’m not a lawyer, but I think you are both correct to entertain the possibility that someone could travel to the UK on a visa and then claim asylum. However, it is for this reason that the UK is so keen to refuse visas (including transit visas) to anyone likely to claim asylum and that it imposes carrier sanctions etc to stop anyone without a visa from travelling by regular air or sea routes. Discussion on twitter suggests also that, following the Rwanda deal, the UK might deem that someone who entered on a valid visa and then claimed asylum had entered illegally by deception and, inadmissible to the UK asylum system, could be shipped to Rwanda with the rest. Of course we don’t know whether this will happen yet. This would leave a residual group of people living in the UK who had entered on, say, work or student visas, who claimed asylum after, for example, a regime change in their country of nationality. Such people would still, I suppose, be admissible under the new system. But there probably wouldn’t be very many of them.


Matt 04.17.22 at 10:08 pm

Thanks Chris – that’s helpful. The possible change to deem people who entered on a valid visa and then claimed asylum as having “entered by deception” (unless, I assume, there were changed conditions after entry) would really give the game up. (Of course, the refugee convention itself is explicit that refugees are not supposed to be treated differently based on their means of or status at entry, so long as they “present themselves” to authorities in a “reasonable” time. That’s something that Australia clearly doesn’t follow.) I know that in the “risk assessment” that Australia uses in deciding whether to grant a tourist (or student, and perhaps other temporary) visa, one factor that’s used is whether the country produces a “large” number of asylum applicants, making it even harder for people to enter “legally” than it would otherwise be. (It’s perhaps relevant that the US and UK are two of the three largest contributors to the relatively small “unauthorized” population in Australia, but can travel without a formal visa.)


MisterMr 04.18.22 at 7:44 am

But unless there is a visa specifically for asylum seekers, only people who by coincidence can enter the UK for other reasons can claim asylum.

For example: in the old times of the USSR the odd athlete who was touring the UK as part of some soviet team could ask for asylum, but a random soviet citizen who say passed the berlin wall or otherwise escaped to the western block couldn’t because he could never have the papers in order.

More generally since the UK can determine by its own laws who is considered to be in legally it turns asylum from a human right to a gracious concession of the UK.
I think most people who vote for the right do currently think that asylum is a gracious concession, but it is not the way asylum is supposed to work.

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