Challenging the Legitimacy: The UK-Rwanda Asylum Agreement Under Scrutiny

On April 14, 2022, the UK and Rwanda signed an agreement known as the Migration and Economic Development Partnership. According to the agreement, some asylum seekers in the UK would be transferred to Rwanda, and their claims would be determined in Rwanda.

The idea was declared illegal by the UK Supreme Court in November 2023 because it is a violation of both international and British human rights agreements and legislation if people were transferred to Rwanda. Upon the UK Supreme Court’s decision, the Prime Minister of the UK responded by negotiating a new treaty with Rwanda and introducing new legislation, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which aims to circumvent legal barriers and declare the nation safe. Even if certain changes were made to the agreement, it is still widely criticised, particularly by the UNCHR.

The Prime Minister of the UK indicated that the UK needs a “clear and effective deterrent” to prevent illegal migration to the country. However, is the method of deterring itself even legal? It is important to note that the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which the UK is a state party, prohibits punishment for unauthorised entry into a nation; hence, a person’s method of travel to the UK shouldn’t have an impact on their asylum claim. The 1951 Refugee Convention sets out refugees’ rights and the obligations of states to protect them.

UNCHR describes the partnership made between the UK and Rwanda an example of the externalization of international protection. Normally, an asylum seeker should be processed in the territory of the state where they arrive. However, with this partnership, responsibility is shifted from the UK to Rwanda. UNCHR also notes that previous externalization attempts have not been successful. As a result, an asylum seeker arriving in the UK will likely be transferred to a third country, regardless how strong that person’s refugee claim is. This situation contradicts the refugee law and the 1951 Convention.

Even if the UK government was persistent about Rwanda being a safe third country, neither the UK Supreme Court nor UNCHR found Rwanda safe enough to transfer the asylum-seekers. This claim is supporting by the fact that four Rwandans, who claimed that they were at risk from the regime, were granted refugee status in the UK while the agreement process was going on between the two states. 

On the other hand, the issue that most concerns the UNCHR is “refoulement”. According to the UNCHR’s assessment, there is no guarantee that asylum seekers will not be send back to their country of origin. To guarantee this, institutional implementations are required; the formal agreement between the states is insufficient.

As a result, the UNCHR considers that the agreement between the UK and Rwanda is incompatible with international refugee law and does not meet the necessary standards for the legitimacy and appropriateness of the transfer of asylum seekers.