Migration & Conflict

Sunak’s Legacy: Outsourcing Migration

June 28, 2024
rishi sunak wearing life jacket

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Border Force in Dover. Image: Number 10, Flickr.

The plea to “Stop the Boats” is deeply entwined with the leadership of Rishi Sunak and fruitless efforts to export the British asylum process to Rwanda will be part of his legacy.  

In 2022, then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson revealed government plans to relocate the United Kingdom’s asylum processing to Rwanda. Under this plan an uncapped number of illegally laned migrants seeking asylum from the UK would be sent to Rwanda to have their asylum claims heard. Controversially, if deemed eligible they would receive asylum from the Rwandan Government, not the UK. 

This surprising plan is a response to the growing number of migrants attempting to enter the UK through illegal means; primarily by crossing the English Channel in small boats operated by people smugglers. Despite the relatively small distance between France and England (33km) the journey is highly dangerous and has led to the deaths of 240 people since 2014. As of May 2024, a total of 8,278 migrants have entered the UK by small boat this year alone. The plan is intended as more of a deterrent than an ingenious way of speeding up asylum claims. 

black hand holding rope on boat

Image: Izanbar, Getty Images.

The measure is part of the Illegal Migration Act 2023. A person will be eligible to receive a “third country removal notice” (removal to Rwanda) if they fulfil the following four conditions: 

  • The person requires leave to enter the UK but has done so by illegal means, deception, in breach of a deportation order, without valid clearance or authorisation
  • The person has arrived under the above conditions after the Illegal Immigration Act 2023 has been passed
  • Upon entering the UK the person did not come directly from a country where the person's life and liberty were threatened by reason of their race, religion, nationality, membership or a particular social group or political opinion. This includes having travelled through a safe third country to reach the UK
  • The person requires leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom but does not have it.

The plan is mostly in response to the third condition as many migrants travel through several European countries in order to cross the English Channel. 

Under the Act applicants will be given ‘third country removal notice’ and 8 days to issue an appeal. They will be transported by plane to Rwanda where their asylum claim will be processed. They will stay in a former hostel purchased by the UK Government for the duration of the process. If eligible they will receive asylum and appropriate protection from the Rwandan Government.

However, if their claims are unsuccessful the individual will receive permanent residency status in Rwanda and be encouraged to integrate and contribute to Rwandan society. Through this Act, no roads lead back to the UK for illegally landed migrants. 

When first proposed, the plan was challenged by the Supreme Court, who until 2023 deemed the country unsafe for asylum seekers, citing that it posed a legitimate threat of refoulement for vulnerable refugees. Refoulement is the act of subjecting asylum seekers to further harm or danger by returning them to their country of origin or a similarly designated unsafe territory. 

To counter this argument the Safety of Rwanda Bill was passed in 2023. This bi-lateral treaty promises to maintain safety for asylum seekers moving from the UK to Rwanda and aims to ensure that they will not be relocated again. The Supreme Court case focused solely on the issue of refoulement, not the relative safety of Rwanda. Any appeals by applicants to domestic courts relating to the relative safety of Rwanda are deemed inadmissible. Further, to enact this Bill Rule 39 of the Human Rights Act 1998 may be disapplied. This rule allows other European countries to intervene if they believe that the new Act would place an asylum applicant in danger. Sunak is adamant that he will not let foreign courts stop the UK from sending migrants to Rwanda. 

The issue of safety in Rwanda is contested, in relative terms Rwanda is reportedly one of the safest countries in Africa in terms of petty crime. In recent months both Channel 4 and the BBC have released newsreels highlighting concerns from Rwandan activists who have faced persecution by the government for their political opinions. The UK itself accepted 15 Rwandan asylum claims last year. The British Government currently advertises a travel warning for the country due to ongoing conflict along the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) which has led to internal displacement. 

To ensure safety of asylum applicants an extensive monitoring team will provide end-to-end tracking, from initial screening to settlement. There will be real time monitoring for at least the first 3 months with the possibility for extension of up to 12 months. This includes emergency response units that can be deployed within 24 hours after an incident. Applicants will be given adequate legal aid every step of the way. Appeals will be dealt with judiciously via a panel of 8 internationally selected judges presided over by two judges, one Rwandan and one from any commonwealth country (not necessarily UK). 

Under the plan the UK has also acquired a hostel to be used as accommodation. The BBC reported that this facility was formerly an orphanage built to house children affected by the genocide which occured 30 years ago. Several adult residents were evicted to make way for UK plans. 

rishi sunak standing in front of podium that says stop the boats

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Border Force in Dover.  Image: Number 10, Flickr.

The whole Rwanda issue will be a moot point however if Keir Starmer, Labour leader, becomes Prime Minister in early July. Labour plans to divert the hundreds of millions that would be spent outsourcing asylum claims to strengthening border defence. If the Conservatives remain in power, Sunak has promised that the first planes will leave bound for Rwanda on 24th July. To this date more than £260 million has already been spent on the operation while no-one occupies the hostel and zero planes have flown. 

Whether the plan achieves fruition or not, it remains indicative of the current zeitgeist around migration occurring across Europe and the West in general. The move is drastic and surreal, yet the UK is not the only country considering outsourcing its migration issue. In Europe Italy, Denmark and Germany are all considering utilising ‘third countries’ as processing locations. This measure is specific to illegally landed migrants seeking asylum, those fearing persecution or harm can still apply for asylum through legitimate channels.

Since Brexit the UK’s immigration process has become more stringent. It operates on a points based system favouring applicants who have a university education, high level of English, a job offer or the potential to contribute to British society in a way that rivals or exceeds that of a current British citizen. This naturally rules out a large portion of people looking towards England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for a fresh start and opportunity of a better life. 

The tightening of legal migration routes could be a major contributing factor in the uptick of people trying to enter through the asylum system. Processing time for asylum applications range from a few months to over a year, which is a bit more efficient than Ireland. For context, in Ireland the average waiting time is 18 months. Fortunately most (76%) legitimate asylum applications are accepted.