Rwandan Law Stirs Fear and Uncertainty Among UK Asylum Seekers

In the pre-dawn chill on a spring day last month, Mohsen, a 36-year-old Iranian, boarded a rubber boat on the coast of France. Aware of the risks, the trepidation in his heart matched the calm waters of the English Channel. Since 2018, the International Organization for Migration has recorded at least 72 people losing their lives in these waters while attempting to reach the UK. Yet, Mohsen held onto his resolve, fuelled by the memory of police officers threatening him with arrest after his participation in anti-government protests in Iran.

The quest for a new life in Britain, however, is fraught with increasing anxiety for asylum seekers like Mohsen. Sparking new fears is the British government’s plan, first announced in 2022, to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda, a central African country. Despite the looming threat of deportation, Mohsen took the risk, a testament to his desperate plea for freedom.

The precariousness of their situation was exacerbated when Britain’s Conservative government recently passed a contentious law paving the way for deportation flights to Rwanda to commence in the summer. This move followed months of unsuccessful efforts by the House of Lords to amend the bill, and came despite a Supreme Court ruling deeming Rwanda unsafe for refugees. Critics of the new law, including a former Conservative chancellor, warn that disregarding the highest court sets an “extremely dangerous precedent.”

Under the new policy, some asylum seekers will have their claims assessed in Rwanda. Even if approved, they will be resettled there, not in Britain. The new law applies to anyone who arrived in Britain after January 1, 2022, by dangerous means, or via a “safe third country.” Amid these developments, very few ways remain to claim asylum in Britain, with exceptions mainly for Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong.

Asylum seekers are voicing their concerns over Rwanda’s troubled human rights record. Rights groups report that fears of being sent away have compounded the anxiety of living in limbo for months or years. For instance, Habibullah, a 28-year-old who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban killed his father and brother, is haunted by the prospect of being deported to Rwanda. His ordeal underscores the chilling reality of the asylum seekers who, having endured immense hardship to reach the UK, are now living in fear of being sent away.

The fear of deportation is not only confined to those from the Middle East or Asia. Marvin George Bamwite, a 27-year-old Ugandan who fled his home due to draconian anti-gay laws, echoed similar sentiments. He pointed out that while Rwanda might be safe for some, it is not for everyone, particularly not for the LGBTQ+ community. The Rwandan government, despite the country’s transformation since the 1994 genocide, has been accused of repression and human rights abuses.

The new law, which aims to declare Rwanda safe and instruct judges and immigration officials to treat it as such, is a “legal fiction,” according to lawyers in the House of Lords. The British Supreme Court had earlier declared the Rwanda policy unlawful, citing real risks of ill-treatment due to “refoulement” – the return of refugees to their countries of origin, potentially facing violence or ill treatment, a violation of both British and international law.

Despite these legal and humanitarian concerns, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced the immediate detention of asylum seekers, with the first deportation flights scheduled for the summer. While legal challenges may delay these flights, the government’s policy is based on the assumption that the prospect of ending up in Rwanda would deter asylum seekers from attempting to reach Britain. However, boat arrivals have continued unabated.

This situation has led to a climate of fear permeating the hotels, shared houses, and other places where many asylum seekers are housed awaiting decisions on their cases. Some, like Mohammed Al Muhandes, who fled Yemen due to threats against his life amid the country’s civil war, have spent months in these temporary accommodations, barred from working and reliant on government support.

Navigating the uncertainty, these asylum seekers are caught in a web of legal complexities and shifting political agendas. Their stories serve as a stark reminder of the human cost of stringent asylum policies and the need for compassion in addressing the global refugee crisis.