What the UK’s controversial migration bill could mean for EU policy

The British parliament has passed a new law allowing the government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Could the policy catch on in EU member states?  
Migrants arriving in Kent, England, in March 2022.

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

29 Apr 2024

Last week, the British parliament approved a controversial bill that paves the way for the UK to send asylum seekers to Rwanda with no chance of return – a move that could have implications for the EU’s own crackdown on migration.  

Under the Safety of Rwanda law, about 52,000 people currently stuck in the UK’s asylum system could be sent to the African country, which Freedom House last year classified as “not free.”  

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government is betting that by flying asylum seekers to Rwanda, where they would enter the Rwandan asylum system, the UK can dissuade refugees and migrants from making the trek to its shores.  

The law goes against a decision by Britain’s Supreme Court, interim measures by the European Court of Human Rights, and warnings by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR)  – the latter of which said last week that the legislation is “in breach of the Refugee Convention.”  

According to Catherine Woollard, the director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the law is “very significant.” She argues that “we're in unprecedented territory for the UK to see the government legislating to counter and contradict the supreme court.”  

However, the so-called outsourcing of asylum seekers is not a new policy idea, as Chloe Marshall-Denton, a humanitarian advisor at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), explains. She cites the example of Australia, which has been sending refugees to the island of Nauru on and off since 2001 under a policy called “offshore processing.”

Marshall-Denton co-published a report in February that found an alarmingly high rate of suicide-related behaviour in adults and children in Nauru. “It is linked to this notion of containment, but also to the fact of people being in indefinite limbo and not knowing what will happen to them. We're quite concerned of this being replicated,” she says.   

“The UK-Rwanda deal mirrors this model in many ways, and we're afraid that this will further proliferate within the EU. We've already been hearing that countries like Denmark have been thinking about this arrangement,” Marshall-Denton adds.  

There has been a growing trend of outsourcing migration policy at the EU level and across the bloc’s member states, including Brussels' €105m deal with Tunisia and Italy’s recent arrangement with Albania – both of which have drawn criticism from human rights organisations.  

“It fits into the broader logic of deterrence and with the policies put into place at the external borders of the EU,” Marshall-Denton says, referencing the EU’s new Migration and Asylum Pact. “It’s becoming increasingly mainstream within the political rhetoric and political sphere.” 

As part of that legislation, the EU has incorporated the concept of “safe third countries” to which asylum seekers can be redirected. Brussels has also made separate agreements to provide financial assistance to countries with questionable human rights records like Tunisia, if they help thwart migration to Europe. 

But even with the recent rise of varying migration policies that utilise third countries, Woollard believes the UK-Rwanda deal could actually discourage other nations from employing a similar practice. “One of the positive implications is that this whole mess in the UK shows other European governments that this doesn't really work,” she says. Woollard notes the high costs – the total payment to Rwanda will be at least £370m over five years – as well as the many looming legal battles she expects the UK to lose.   

In her view, “it will only be a very small number of people who will ever be sent to Rwanda. It's really spending a large amount of time and resources on something that has very limited impact.” Those are resources that she believes could instead be invested in a developing a functioning asylum system that ensures people have access to protection as quickly as possible.   

It’s becoming increasingly mainstream within the political rhetoric and political sphere.

Similarly, Marshall-Denton doubts that restrictive policies such as the UK-Rwanda deal will sufficiently deter people from taking a dinghy from France to England. “Until genuine alternatives are put in place to allow for people's safe passage, we're going to see people continue taking these means of travelling because there is no other alternative," she argues. 

In the Mediterranean, she explains, migrants can be apprehended numerous times as they adapt their routes, often making them even more dangerous. “If you look at the map and the ways in which Europe is trying to crack down on movement, now you have people from Eritrea or Damascus arriving through Belarus, facing violence at the border, being for weeks without food in the woods, etc. All because there is no other way.”    

Woollard adds: “Refugees have no choice but to take a terrible journey and arrive in any way they can. It's not illegal to cross the border to seek international protection. This is what refugees have always had to do.”    

Meanwhile, Sunak insisted last week that flights to Rwanda will take off within 10 to 12 weeks. "Plans are in place. And these flights will go, come what may," the prime minister said, adding that he wanted to create "a drumbeat of multiple flights a month... because that's how you build a systematic deterrent and that's how you'll stop the boats.”   

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