Rwanda policy ‘could change UK position on human rights record’, High Court told

·5-min read

The Foreign Office told then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab that the UK would have to prepare to “constrain” its position on Rwanda’s human rights record if the country was selected in the Government’s policy to deport some asylum seekers, the High Court has been told.

Several asylum seekers, the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and charities Care4Calais, Detention Action and Asylum Aid are bringing legal action against the Home Office plan to provide one-way tickets to the east African country.

In written submissions filed for a preliminary hearing on Tuesday on behalf of the groups and eight individuals, Raza Husain QC said that recently provided documents showed that Rwanda had initially been excluded from the shortlist of potential countries “on human rights grounds”.

The documents provided earlier this month also include several memos and internal communications from the Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

In written submissions, Mr Husain said that in March 2021, Foreign Office officials told then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab in a note that if Rwanda was selected for the policy “we would need to be prepared to constrain UK positions on Rwanda’s human rights record, and to absorb resulting criticism from UK Parliament and NGOs”.

In another memo, Foreign Office officials said they had advised Downing Street against engagement with a number of countries, including Rwanda.

Mr Husain continued: “On May 20 2021, a memo from the Foreign Office indicated that it ‘continue(d) to advise No10 against engagement’ with Rwanda and several other countries, and identified that ‘in most cases, any agreement with these states would require us to relax the legal criteria… which requires inter alia that a country has a functioning asylum system in compliance with Refugee Convention obligations’.”

They added that an internal email six days later indicated that the Foreign Secretary had said: “The exam question should be whether, with financial support, the host country could get up to ECHR standards, not UK standards”.

The barrister also said that the UK High Commissioner to Rwanda indicated last year that the east African country should not be used as an option for the policy for several reasons, including that it “has been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.

A Home Office memo from March 2022 showed the department was reluctant to engage with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, Mr Husain argued.

The memo stated: “Engagement with UNHCR gives them more time to organise their campaign against these measures when they are announced.”

Hope Hostel in Kigali
The reception area at the Hope Hostel in Kigali, Rwanda, where migrants will stay after arriving from the UK on a deportation flight (Victoria Jones/PA)

He later said that another official memo, dated April 12 2022, said the “fraud risk is very high” and that there is “limited evidence about whether these proposals will be a sufficient deterrent for those seeking to enter the UK illegally”.

After the claims were made public, groups involved in the case and two MPs criticised the policy.

Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “This revelation is shocking but not surprising. Our view has always been that the Rwanda policy will not work as a deterrent.”

Paul O’Connor, head of bargaining at PCS, said: “The revelations at today’s hearing are extraordinary.

“They paint a picture of a Home Secretary desperate to railroad this policy through even in the face of serious reservations being raised by senior departmental officials.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The Government’s Rwanda plan is a total mess. Today’s revelations show that ministers knew the policy was unenforceable, would be at very high fraud risk and would undermine UK foreign policy and our ability to raise the issue of Rwanda’s human rights record.”

“This is yet more evidence that this policy is unworkable, unethical, and extortionately expensive, as well as risking making people trafficking worse,” she added.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael also said: “It has been clear from the outset that these horrendous proposals were immoral, ineffective and incredibly costly for taxpayers. It is shameful that the Home Office, Dominic Raab, and no doubt the detail-lite Prime Minister, ignored advice from the Foreign Office.”

Tuesday’s preliminary hearing largely covered timetabling of the main challenge against the policy.

Rory Dunlop QC, for the Home Office, argued the trial should begin in September and last five days.

He said in written submissions: “The Secretary of State’s aim is to deter the making of dangerous and unnecessary journeys from safe third countries to the UK by asylum seekers, eg crossing the English Channel by small boat or clandestine entry by lorry.”

The barrister continued: “There is a strong public interest in listing this case expeditiously.”

Lord Justice Lewis and Mr Justice Swift will give their decision on when the full hearing will go ahead at 10.30am on Wednesday.

After the hearing, a UK Government spokesperson said: “Rwanda is a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers.

“We remain committed to delivering this policy to break the business model of criminal gangs and save lives.”

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