UK tries to press ahead with controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda

In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party is facing criticism for its new migration deal with Rwanda. As part of a new resettlement scheme, migrants who arrive illegally on British shores would be flown 4,000 miles away to Rwanda for resettling. Zoe Gardner of the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants, an organization among those representing deportees, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party are facing criticism over a new migration deal with Rwanda.

    As part of a resettlement plan, migrants who arrive illegally on British shores would be flown 4,000 miles south to Rwanda for processing and resettling. But the first flight scheduled to depart yesterday was canceled.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The plane was ready, the tarmac clear. But the first flight scheduled to take asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda yesterday was canceled minutes before takeoff.

    Over 30 people were expected to be transferred under a sweeping new immigration policy. But a ruling by the European Commission for Human Rights halted deportations.

  • Priti Patel, British Home Secretary:

    These repeated legal barriers…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Still, in the House of Commons today, British Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government will press on with their plan.

  • Priti Patel:

    We believe that we are fully compliant with our domestic and international obligations, and preparations for our future flights and the next flights have already begun.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In April, the U.K. and Rwanda brokered a deal to send asylum seekers on one-way tickets to the East African nation, where their asylum applications would be processed.

    Proponents say this would deter criminal gangs from trafficking people and stop illegal migration into the U.K., much of it across the English Channel.

  • Daniel Sohege, International Refugee Law Expert:

    Their argument is that, if people think they're going to be sent 4,000 miles away, then they won't even attempt to make the crossing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Daniel Sohege is an expert on international refugee law and campaign manager for the group Love146 U.K., an international human rights organization.

    He says the policy is in line with the government's post-Brexit agenda.

  • Daniel Sohege:

    They want to reduce them people coming into the U.K. seeking asylum. And control borders is the line which is used quite often.

    Ever since the Brexit referendum, this has been a major, key point for the government. And they have just gradually increased the hostility of immigration policies.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Under the new policy, the U.K. has offered Rwanda over $150 million to house refugees in facilities like this one, with up to five years of support. Rwanda is already home to over 130,000 migrants and refugees.

    And, yesterday, Yolande Makolo, a government spokesperson, defended the deal.

    Yolande Makolo, Rwandan Government spokesperson: We don't think it's immoral to offer a home to people, something that we have done here for more than 30 years.

  • Protesters:

    Shame on you! Shame on you!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Inside the U.K., the issue has divided public opinion. Cross-country protests erupted earlier this week, urging the government to drop the deal. Activists also worry about Rwanda's human rights record.

    The head of the U.N.'s Refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, denounced the plan as irresponsible.

    Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: I think we have been so clear over the last few weeks that we believe that this is all wrong. This is all wrong, this deal, for so many different reasons.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is standing his ground.

  • Boris Johnson, British Prime Minister:

    But what we're going to get on and do, Mr. Speaker, is continue to take the tough decisions to take this country forward, and decisions that are on the side of the British people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A July hearing will decide the policy's legality.

    Meanwhile, the fate of many asylum seekers in the U.K. hangs in the balance.

    For more on this, I'm joined by Zoe Gardner from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. Her organization is among those representing the potential deportees which won yesterday's legal case.

    Zoe Gardner, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for joining us.

    So, your group represented two people, I believe, who were on that flight yesterday, as we just reported, canceled within just a few minutes before it was scheduled to take off.

    Take me inside that kind of flurry of case-by-case appeals that unfolded in the last few days. How did it come down to the last minute like that?

    Zoe Gardner, Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants: Oh, well, it's an extremely stressful situation, especially, not least, of course, for the refugees themselves and for their family members, some of whom are here in the U.K., who are seeing the people that they want desperately to be reunited with snatched away.

    The reason why it comes down to the last minute like that is that the government only has to provide notification of a deportation five days before it actually happens. So then they complain that there's all these last-minute legal challenges.

    But the reality is that people don't have an opportunity before that. And it really does go down to the line very often.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So tell me about those two clients. Where are they from? Why were they in the U.K.? And what would deportation to Rwanda have meant for them?

  • Zoe Gardner:

    Well, one of them's Kurdish Iraqi, and one of them's a Syrian young man.

    And the Syrian man was targeted by the regime in Syria. He had to run away at a moment's notice. There's no safe route, no visa to travel to the U.K. in order to claim asylum. But he has two sisters living here in the U.K.

    And when my colleague told him about the letter, he was like, I have received this letter. What does it mean? What is it — what is it telling me about my life? And she said to him, it means you're going to be sent to Rwanda. He said to her, what's Rwanda?

    And I think it just takes an incredibly enormous level of callousness not to engage with the humanity of that situation, talking about a refugee who has escaped devastation and war, who has come to our country to seek our protection. And we're proposing to just tear his life away and send him off on a one-way ticket around the world to a country that we can basically bribe economically because we're so much richer than them to take in the people that we don't want.

    It's not OK. And it makes the Rwandan government, which, by the way, is not a democracy — it's not a country where political dissent is tolerated. It gives them a propaganda coup. They can say they're partnering with the United Kingdom government and they're helping to deal with this issue. And it makes them look good.

    But it makes us look terrible. And we really, really shouldn't be engaging in this with any other country, really. The right place for refugees who are trying to get to the U.K. to have their asylum cases heard is here in the U.K.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we should note some refugees, many refugees, are allowed in.

    I mean, on the one hand, at this moment, you have the U.K. creating what I understand to be a special visa program to welcome people from Ukraine who are fleeing war, thousands of people, tens of thousands. And, on the other hand, you have this deportation flight, which consisted, correct me if I'm wrong, mostly of people from Iraq and Afghanistan and Sudan and the U.K. saying, you are not allowed to stay here, you have to go to Rwanda to seek asylum.

    So how does the government answer to something that seems very obviously like a racist double standard?

  • Zoe Gardner:

    Well, it absolutely seems to people up and down the U.K. like a racist double standard. And it absolutely is. There's no reply to that.

    The government set in place a visa, as you say, for Ukrainians to come here. And within five minutes of them putting that online, 100,000 people in the U.K. had volunteered to offer up their homes to welcome people from Ukraine fleeing that war. People fleeing Syria, the same bombs — Putin has attacked cities and communities in Syria, just as he has in Ukraine.

    But those people have no visa route to come to the U.K. And so they are forced into these desperate journeys that enrich smuggling gangs. And what we need to do is actually introduce safe routes for everybody to have an accessible asylum system for all, because we really welcome the warmth that has been shown to Ukrainian refugees. But it isn't right that people from the Middle East and from Africa and Black and brown people are being treated so differently and so poorly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Zoe, what's happening politically and culturally in the U.K. right now that would create conditions where this kind of policy is accepted and politicians think that this is the time to push forward with it, as the home secretary says that they will?

  • Zoe Gardner:

    The prime minister's position is actually really hanging by a thread right now.

    He's been exposed for having broke the law, the laws he made during our lockdown to protect us all from the COVID pandemic. He broke the law during his time in office, and then he lied to us about it and said there were no parties, when it turns out there was party after party during lockdown.

    And, obviously, the faith of the public has just gone way down, in terms of trust in our politicians and trust in the prime minister. And so he's trying to shore up his position, change the conversation, talk about something different. Oh, look over there. There's some foreigners. We should blame them for our problems.

    So I really do hope that the courts will find that this is very clearly against the letter of the Refugee Convention, and, therefore, that it's illegal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Zoe Gardner from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants joining us tonight.

    Thank you for your time.

  • Zoe Gardner:

    Thank you.

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