Boris Johnson’s plans to send unauthorised asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to Rwanda have been roundly condemned amid warnings that it will be challenged in the courts and could result in further deaths in the Channel.
After the prime minister outlined plans to hand an initial down-payment of £120m to the Rwandan government in the hope that it will accept “tens of thousands” of people, politicians and refugee groups condemned the move as inhumane, unworkable and a waste of public money.
The Rwanda proposal was one of a series of measures announced by the prime minister and Priti Patel, the home secretary, as they seek to get to grips with a febrile political row over Channel crossings. The number of people crossing has already passed 5,000 this year, more than double the 2021 total at the same point.
Amid calls for the government to disclose the overall costs of the plans, which have not been released, it emerged that:
• Men and women could be flown 4,500 miles to Rwanda, where they will be encouraged to apply for refugee status. However, children and their parents would not be sent.
• The Royal Navy has been given powers to control the Channel after another day of hundreds of people arriving in small boats to seek refuge in the UK.
• Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the defence select committee, accused Johnson of unveiling the plans as part of a “massive distraction” from becoming the first prime minister to be found guilty of a criminal charge while in office.
• A Border Force union official has warned that the announcement will result in a short-term spike in refugees trying to cross the Channel, with an elevated risk of travelling in poor conditions, putting lives at risk.
• A snap poll by YouGov of almost 3,000 voters on Thursday found that only 35% of people support the measures, with 43% opposed.
Speaking at a press conference in Kent, Johnson said the scheme was needed to “save countless lives” from human trafficking by breaking the business model of people smugglers.
“The deal we have done [with Rwanda] is uncapped, and Rwanda will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead. And let’s be clear, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognised for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants,” he said.
Asked about the poor human rights record in Rwanda, where some groups have logged the torture of detainees, he said: “Rwanda has totally transformed. Over the last few decades it has totally transformed from what it was.”
Refusing to engage with questions about his breaking of lockdown rules, Johnson said the Royal Navy would from Thursday take over “operational command” in the Channel from the Border Force to ensure “no boat makes it to the UK undetected”.
Measures will be introduced to intercept more small boats and the navy will be given “primacy” to track and intercept them – with £50m of new funding to pay for Wildcat helicopters, search and rescue aircraft, and drones.
Under the plans, those sent to Rwanda will be offered asylum there, with claims processed within three months. Those who are successful will be able to stay for at least five years with a training and support package.
As Johnson addressed reporters, new arrivals reached the shore in Dover on what officials acknowledged was a busy day for crossings.
In a visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, Patel was shown pristine accommodation that will be used to house people flown from the UK. The guest house has 50 rooms over four floors that can accommodate a maximum of 100 people. Two more blocks will be built that will provide a maximum capacity of 300.
In a press conference with Rwanda’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, Patel said on Thursday: “Our world-leading migration and economic development partnership is a global first and will change the way we collectively tackle illegal migration through new, innovative and world-leading solutions.”
However, the UN refugee agency has opposed the plans and said they could be challenged under the Refugee Convention.
“[The UN High Commissioner for Refugees] remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards. Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention,” said UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”
The Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi called the scheme inhumane and cynical. “This proposal of offshoring asylum seekers to Rwanda is ineffective and costly,” she said. “It’s also inhumane and shames our proud history as advocates of human rights and the refugee convention.
She said the plan was inconsistent with the UK’s “generous response” to the Ukraine crisis and described the timing of it as cynical and political.
The British Red Cross executive director, Zoe Abrams, said the humanitarian network was “profoundly concerned” about the plans to “send traumatised people halfway round the world to Rwanda”.
“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel either. People come here for reasons we can all understand, like wanting to be reunited with loved ones, or because they speak the language. Making it harsher may do little to stop them risking their lives,” she said.
Lucy Moreton, the professional officer of the ISU immigration and border union, warned that the announcement could lead to further loss of life in the Channel as people become desperate to reach the UK before any plans to send them Rwanda are implemented.
She said: “What has been announced today is likely to push the immediate numbers up. And that will mean people crossing in less than ideal conditions, putting lives at risk.
“We are worried that they will simply panic and hurt themselves, or inadvertently hurt us, or deliberately hurt us to stay in the UK to be prosecuted rather than be sent to Rwanda. This is not going to happen quickly, possibly for months, and you are frightening everybody until then.”
The president of the Law Society of England and Wales, I. Stephanie Boyce, said there were serious questions over whether the plans complied with international law. “The government is announcing this scheme before parliament has approved the necessary powers,” she said. “There are serious questions about whether these plans would or could comply with the UK’s promises under international treaty.”