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Rwanda Asylum Partnership

Volume 824: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether it is still their policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I think I am right in saying that this is the Minister’s first appearance in this post, so I welcome him and warn him of trouble to come.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to delivering the partnership between the UK and Rwanda, so we can break the business model of people smugglers and prevent further loss of life in the channel. Working together, the UK and Rwanda will help to make the immigration system fairer and ensure that people are safe and enjoy new opportunities to flourish.

My Lords, that is of course the standard Answer. I had hoped for a little bit of a U-turn on this issue, but it seems there will not be one. The Government say that this is fully in accordance with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the UNHCR disputes this. There is no basis in international law for our doing this, and we are made to look foolish and in breach of our normal traditions of human rights and a humanitarian approach to refugees. Is it not time for the Government to think again? This is not going to happen in any case, because the lawyers are going to stop it.

I remind noble Lords that Rwanda is a state party to the 1951 UN refugee convention and the seven core UN human rights conventions. It is also worth pointing out that, in September 2019, the African Union, the Government of Rwanda and the UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding to set up an emergency transit mechanism to evacuate refugees and asylum seekers out of Libya. The EU has provided support and donated €12.5 million to the ETM through its emergency trust fund. The UNHCR also stated, in a 2020 press notice, that

“Rwanda has been welcoming refugees for over two decades … The country offers a safe and protective environment to all asylum seekers and refugees.”

There seems to be a degree of inconsistency in the UNHCR’s opinion.

My Lords, I have just returned from a parliamentary visit to Rwanda. Could the Minister clarify which authority in Rwanda would be responsible for determining refugee asylum status? What guarantees are there that the 1951 convention criteria will be faithfully followed? I say this simply because, during this visit, President Kagame said that he was looking for new skills and talents among the refugees or asylum seekers who might be arriving in Rwanda.

As the noble Baroness is aware, the foundation for this is a memorandum of understanding that, it is strongly believed, covers the various points that she made. I cannot answer precisely who is responsible at the Rwandan end, but there are teams of Home Office personnel in place who will also monitor progress.

My Lords, most of the Rwanda Cabinet were refugees and understand the difficulties that people face, particularly coming from war-torn countries. Rwanda has moved forward massively from the days when it suffered war and genocide. Does my noble friend agree that we need to kickstart this process for illegal immigrants as soon as possible as we cannot sustain the levels as they stand and be seen to support people traffickers, who continue to make money on the backs of human misery?

I thank my noble friend for that question and I agree with her. The point of this policy is to break the vile criminal enterprise that operates in the channel. I think most noble Lords would approve of that aim. As to whether Rwanda is safe, which is the essence of my noble friend’s question, I say that it is a fundamentally safe and secure country with respect for the rule of law. She is right to point out that the majority of the Cabinet were refugees, and it is also worth pointing out that Rwanda has one of only two, I think, Parliaments in the world that has a majority of women sitting in it.

My Lords, the UK’s population, about 67 million, is five times that of Rwanda at about 13 million. Yet Rwanda, which is a country far poorer than us, as has already been pointed out, hosts one refugee for every 90 people whereas the figure here is one refugee for every 500 people. I do not think I can put my hand on my heart and say that the UK is doing its bit in a global crisis. I wonder whether the Minister would like to say what we are going to do to play our part in taking refugees here.

The most reverend Primate refers to refugees, so I will too. It is fairly self-evident what we have been doing for refugees, including BNO passport holders from Hong Kong—over 130,000 such visas have now been issued—Ukrainian refugees and Afghan refugees. I remind noble Lords that at the moment the taxpayer is spending about £2 billion a year on this problem. This is about asylum seekers arriving from safe countries, and about trying to put the criminal gangs out of business.

I am grateful to the Government Chief Whip. I visited the reception centre in Kigali in June, and I asked about the legal basis of that centre, which is on a private contract on an annual basis that will run out in April. I saw no facilities for people who will be vulnerable or at suicide risk, and I have asked repeatedly in this House about the legal underpinning of the MoU. This House’s International Agreements Committee has today reported to say that it is unacceptable for measures such as this to be under an MoU rather than being under a treaty. Will the Government think again and allow Parliament to vote on, scrutinise and ratify this agreement if they believe that it is sound?

I thank the noble Lord for his two questions. First, he mentioned the risk of suicide. It is worth pointing out that the health and welfare of those in immigration detention is of the utmost importance. We have a dedicated welfare team on site at each immigration removal centre which is responsible for identifying vulnerable individuals and providing assistance to support an individual’s needs. I remind noble Lords that decisions will be taken on a case-by-case basis and nobody will be relocated if it is unsafe or inappropriate for them. With regard to the terms governing this, which was his second question, he will not be surprised to hear me answer that this is slightly above my pay grade, but I will happily take it back to the department.

My Lords, in a Written Answer on 13 October, a Home Office Minister revealed that, as well as the £120 million down payment on this policy, there was

“a £20m upfront payment to the Government of Rwanda to support initial set up costs.”

Is the Minister able to give clarity to the House on the full cost per person of this scheme and to say whether there will be further up-front payments?

I am afraid I am not able to comment on the cost per person; as of yet no one has actually gone, as noble Lords know, so it would be premature to do so. As the noble Lord points out, the UK has invested an initial £120 million into the economic development and growth of Rwanda, and £20 million has been committed to the centre described in the last question. It is an up-front payment to the Government of Rwanda to support initial set-up costs. As and when those other figures are available, I will come back to him.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister knows that I am among a number on these Benches who are deeply uncomfortable with this policy and with some of the language used, even by those at the top of the Home Office, in discussing it. Surely the hundreds of millions of pounds already spent and earmarked for implementing this policy in future would be better spent here, speeding up the systems and processes at the Home Office so that decisions are made fairly and in good time and those in genuine need receive the security they deserve, while those with no grounds to remain are returned to their countries of origin and not a land they have no link to. I ask him to take this suggestion back to the department.

I understand the strength of feeling, so of course I will be more than happy to take my noble friend’s suggestion back to the department.

My Lords, the Minister said that this was above his pay grade. Not only, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, does the report that my committee produced yesterday say that it is “unacceptable” that this should be by an MoU rather than a treaty—which means it does not come through this or the other House—but the Home Office declined the invitation to give evidence to us on its reason for avoiding parliamentary scrutiny by using an MoU. There is no excuse for that, and we deserve a reason why the Home Office has back-tracked and used not a treaty, as it should have, but an MoU.

As I answered to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I will absolutely take that back to the Home Office and see what can be done.

My Lords, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in a written submission to the High Court this year—not a previous year—said:

“There should be no transfers of asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda under the UK-Rwanda Arrangement.”

It said there was “a serious risk” of human rights abuses and a serial disregard for international law in Rwanda. The UNHCR has clearly changed its mind. Why will the Government not change theirs?

My Lords, I have already stated that we are of the firm opinion that Rwanda complies with international law. I go back to my earlier answer: under the scheme I described earlier, the emergency transit mechanism under the aegis of the UNHCR, Rwanda has welcomed and integrated more than 500 individuals who were evacuated from Libya. Personally, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why the UNHCR seems to take this line with us when it is doing it itself.