On 14th April, it was reported that a deal has been made between the UK and Rwanda to establish a system of off-shore processing for asylum seekers who arrive irregularly to the UK. This means that people who arrive in the UK without a valid visa or permission to enter the state would be sent to Rwanda to have their asylum claim processed. The agreement between the UK and Rwanda makes it clear that once someone is sent to Rwanda to have their asylum application assessed, any refugee status that they acquire will be granted by Rwanda, and as such there will be no possibility to enter the UK on the basis of being recognised as having protection needs.
Under current UK law, people who lodge an asylum claim in state cannot be removed until a decision has been made on their application. This applies even in cases where the person has arrived irregularly to the state – for example, without a valid visa. This reflects protections implied in the Refugee Convention and elaborated by UNHCR and other refugee law scholars, that asylum seekers should not be penalised for entering irregularly. This is intended to reflect the reality of forced displacement, and the impracticality of navigating onerous bureaucracy as a precursor to escaping immediate danger. Under the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill however, this – and other protections – are being dismantled in order to fully illegalise and criminalise the spontaneous seeking of asylum. Importantly, the agreement between the UK and Rwanda establishes Rwanda as third country willing to receive asylum seekers for assessment, something the UK had not previously secured.
The Rwanda-UK arrangement, in tandem with the proposed Bill, emulates the system established in Australia, where entry to the state is tied exclusively to visas, and where irregularly arriving asylum seekers are deflected to third countries, such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG), to have their application assessed. Eventually, those who were diverted by Australia to other countries and territories were blocked from ever entering mainland Australia, even if they were recognised as refugees. Australia regularly capitalises on its ambiguous legal responsibility to asylum seekers on Nauru and PNG, particularly where there are questions over the health and safety of those being held in processing centres.
While prominent members of the European Parliament have vocally criticised the creation of a third country off-shoring partnership with Rwanda, it is well known that the EU itself has actively supported and funded the interception and deflection of asylum seekers attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Libya. The EU invests heavily in the training and resourcing of the Libyan coast guard, often resulting in the forcible return of refugees to inhuman conditions in Libyan detention centres. In addition, the ‘EU-Turkey Deal’, in operation since 2016, seeks to contain refugees in Turkey through a series of return measures which though having yielded poor results from the perspective of the EU, have created substantial hardship for refugees.
The use of third countries or external territories as part of migration management schemes has therefore now become a key feature in many industrialised countries and regions. Beyond Australia and the EU, the US has long relied on ex-military colonial outposts, such as Guantanamo Bay and Guam, as part of its migration management strategies. The use of external states and territories in this way is therefore not novel or unique, but there are features of the UK-Rwanda arrangement that signify a departure from previous approaches.
First, with the examples of the EU, Australia, and the US – there tends to be a pre-existing colonial dynamic between the states seeking to deflect migration movements and the territories to which migrants are sent. The EU arrangement developed out of a series of bi-lateral agreements between Italy and Libya, Nauru was a League of Nations mandate administered by Australia, and Guantanamo Bay has been under US military control since the end of the Spanish-American war. Despite extensive British exploitation and colonisation of the African continent however, Rwanda is not an ex-colony of Britain. However, the imperial dynamic which underscores the UK-Rwanda arrangement is nonetheless undeniable. As Lemberg-Pederson points out, the EU has long attempted to externalise its asylum regime in African states by creating ‘regional disembarkation platforms’. These creations are justified on the basis that they will undermine smuggling operations and protect from loss of life. However, as Lemberg-Pederson notes, most African states reject these proposals as thinly veiled neo-colonial governance. The presentation of these kinds of arrangements as newly conceived innovations to protect human rights is disingenuous and obfuscates the hundreds of years of what Lemberg-Pederson refers to as ‘European manufactured displacement’ under systems of enslavement and colonial rule.
The next departure is in relation to geographical distance between the states deflecting migration and the sites that migrants are being sent. As Mountz has noted, states engaged in this kind of bordering take advantage of the spatial relationship between the state, the sea, and the proximity of the external territory, which is usually an island. Not only is Rwanda not an ex-British colonial territory, it is thousands of miles away, and entirely land-locked.
A key impression of the use of Rwanda is how comparatively inconvenient it is as a site for external bordering. The financial and logistical costs with respect to the use of Rwanda is something that has been flagged by MPs and political commentators. This focus on the financial and administrative burden of this arrangement however misses the point in several respects.
Designing a more cost effective or geographically closer externalisation process would not magically resolve the problems of this plan. More importantly, however, a focus on cost and proximity misses the crucial point that the proposals are designed a spectacle of deterrence, connected to what Pugliese refers to as the spectacle of ‘necessary suffering’.
Decades ago, Debord told us that the spectacle is ‘not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.’ In terms of the spectacle of necessary suffering, extensive coverage of migrants crossing the channel and then asylum applicants being sent to ex-military barracks like Penally and Napier impress upon the British public that migration is a substantial problem, and the response needs to be militaristic and punitive. After all, the army barracks were selected to house asylum seekers in 2020 because of concern that providing asylum seekers with better accommodation would ‘undermine confidence’ in the immigration and asylum system.
Thus, the visualities of keeping asylum seekers in visibly detention-like conditions sends a clear message of ‘necessary suffering’ to maintain the ever-elusive public confidence. The implication is that cruelty and mistreatment is foundational to the successful operation of such a system. In this way, appeals to the human rights concerns relating to transporting asylum seekers to Rwanda may perversely bolster the Home Secretary’s proposal. A group that has become hypervisibilised through their arrival to that state via the English Channel, will in turn be spectacularly transported out of that state. After that point however, as Mountz has pointed out, there is a vanishing from the public imagination as their plight is dealt with elsewhere, by others. A delicate balance of an acceptable level of ‘necessary suffering’ is established through general assurances that the asylum seekers will be provided with a refugee status determination as well as accommodation, but at the same time an understanding that they will be kept in a position that is commensurate to their supposed ‘deservedness’. The performance of moving asylum seekers from the UK to a distant location is the most important aspect of this system from the point of view of the government. The number of people who will ultimately be transferred under this scheme remains to be seen, but the imaginary of the transfer of asylum seekers from the state to a distant location is a powerful element of the state’s narrative
Just like the EU’s ‘regional disembarkation platforms’, the Home Secretary invokes the language of human rights protection to justify the UK-Rwanda arrangement. The message is that irregular arrival is dangerous and that it funds organised criminal gangs who orchestrate smuggling operations. (Or as the Home Secretary incorrectly asserts ‘trafficking’ operations.) Creating these deterrent policies, according to the Home Secretary, will protect people seeking asylum. These policies will encourage those in need of refugee status and international protection, to arrive via the ‘safe, legal routes’.
In reality though, such routes do not exist. There are no general asylum visas available to travel to the UK to seek asylum. Currently, Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion can access only limited schemes based on family unity and sponsorship, yet the number of people who have actually been able to access the UK remains uncertain, with widespread reports of people being blocked by extensive British bureaucracy. The only remaining route to entry is through refugee resettlement schemes, which allows very limited numbers of people to travel to the UK.
The concept of ‘safe, legal routes’ is therefore for the most part a myth. This myth in turn allows for the development of a narrative where ‘good’, ‘law-abiding’ refugees arrive to the UK by sanctioned routes of entry and ‘bad’ and ‘undeserving’ asylum seekers arriving to the state irregularly. This narrative is repeated and then directly cleaves on to law and policy, where poor treatment of asylum seekers then becomes justified. In short, Patel is attempting to abolish the spontaneously arriving refugee – precisely the kind envisioned to be protected under the Refugee Convention.
All of this – the public proclamation that asylum seekers will be transported to Rwanda, the lie of the ‘safe legal routes’, the colonial imaginary of the role that Africa plays in European states’ migration management – reveals that the Home Secretary is keenly aware of the spectacle of deterrence. It is not enough just to make appeals based on the financial costs and pragmatism of the arrangement. Real solidarity with asylum seekers is needed – including the lengths that they are forced to go to in order to access safety. As the events in Ukraine and the ongoing climate catastrophe show us, all of our safety and security is relative, and intensely precarious.
Anne Neylon, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool