British Home Secretary Suella Braverman arrived in Rwanda on Saturday to discuss a controversial agreement which will see the UK deport asylum seekers deemed to have arrived illegally to the African nation.
The scheme is mired in legal difficulties – no one has yet been deported – and Braverman’s visit has been criticized as she invited journalists from right-wing titles to accompany her, excluding liberal ones.
Braverman landed in Rwanda’s capital Kigali where she was greeted by the permanent secretary to Rwanda’s foreign ministry Clementine Mukeka, and the British high commissioner to Rwanda Omar Daair. Later, she visited a housing estate intended to provide accommodation for migrants in the future.
The trip comes 11 months after the UK government outlined its plan to send thousands of migrants considered to have entered the country illegally to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed.
The government argues the program is aimed at disrupting people-smuggling networks and deterring migrants from making the dangerous sea journey across the Channel to England from France.
The plan, which would see the UK pay Rwanda $145 million (£120 million) over the next five years, has faced backlash from NGOs, asylum seekers and a civil service trade union which questioned its legality, leading the government to delay its execution.
No flights have taken place yet, after the first scheduled flight to Rwanda was stopped at the eleventh hour back in June, due to an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), followed by months of legal challenges which have since stalled the program.
Before departing Braverman reaffirmed her commitment to the scheme, saying it would “act as a powerful deterrent against dangerous and illegal journeys,” PA reported.
But Sonya Sceats, chief executive of the charity Freedom from Torture, told CNN this is “profoundly misguided.”
“Policies of deterrence do not work when you are trying to target people who are fleeing torture, war and persecution,” Sceats said.
She added that the decision to invite only government-friendly media on the trip “confirms that they’ve stopped even pretending that they are speaking to the entire country on this issue.”
The UK government has made stopping migrants arriving in small boats on its shores a top priority.
The Illegal Migration Bill, which is being debated in Parliament, hands the government the right to deport anyone arriving illegally in the UK. In many cases, there are no safe and legal routes into the UK, meaning many asylum seekers can only arrive illegally.
Under this bill, people arriving in the UK “won’t be admissible to have their asylum claim assessed even if they are refugees coming from war torn societies,” said Alexander Betts, Director of the University of Oxford Refugee Studies Center.
Instead, they will face immediate removal either to their country of origin, or a third country, like Rwanda.
But there are concerns that the proposed legislation is illegal.
“When you open up the bill, on the first page there’s a big red flag which says: This might be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights,” Betts told CNN.
He added that the proposed bill is of “historical significance,” since it amounts to “a liberal, democratic state abandoning the principle of the right to asylum.”
The United Nations Court of Human Rights has warned that the bill, if enacted, would be a “clear breach” of the Refugee Convention.
There are also concerns that the bill is unworkable. The Rwandan government has indicated that it can only process 1,000 asylum seekers over the initial five-year period.
By contrast, 45,755 people are estimated to have arrived in the UK via small boats taken across the English Channel in 2022 alone.
CNN’s Luke McGee contributed reporting.