Kim Samuel is a visiting scholar at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative and Fulbright Canada ambassador for diversity and social connectedness. She is author of the forthcoming book On Belonging: Finding Connection in an Age of Isolation.
This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders of the Commonwealth governments are meeting in the Rwandan capital of Kigali for their first summit since the start of the pandemic. From climate change to inflation to the war in Ukraine, the agenda is packed with an unusually large set of pressing and consequential issues.
Yet perhaps the topic most in need of emphasis would rather avoid: the controversy over a British plan to deport asylum seekers to special facilities in Rwanda.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced in April that it had reached a memorandum of understanding with Rwandan President Paul Kagame to send up to tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have fled violence, extreme poverty, or oppression to the East African nation in exchange for additional development funding. The plan has been condemned as punitive and impractical by global advocacy groups, church leaders, and global human rights officials. Prince Charles – who is in Kigali representing the British Crown at the Commonwealth summit – reportedly described the plan as “appalling,” though he declined to formally call on the government to abandon the policy.
Earlier this month, the first charter flight to take U.K. asylum seekers to Rwanda was grounded after the European Court of Human Rights issued 11th-hour injunctions to prevent the deportation of people on board, owing mostly to concerns about their security. Other asylum seekers successfully petitioned U.K. courts to avoid expulsion.
It only makes sense that the asylum plan is getting particular attention at this year’s Commonwealth meeting, as it happens to concern two central players at the summit, the U.K. and Rwanda. Yet the issue should be on any major global forum agenda right now. That’s because the case has important implications for the future of international human rights. The British plan to effectively outsource refugee resettlement is indicative of an approach that many other governments may be tempted to try in the coming decades, as the world contends with crises that are likely to cause unprecedented human displacement.
Climate change, economic turbulence, and the ugly resurgence of interstate conflict all threaten to vastly increase rates of forced migration. We are already seeing signs of these worrying trends. Even before Ukraine, the world was dealing with some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers since the Second World War. In the face of budgetary challenges and populist (often nativist) politics, governments of wealthy countries will be increasingly tempted to find crafty new ways to evade their responsibility of offering safe haven to asylum seekers.
But schemes like the U.K.’s aren’t just clever policy maneuvers to evade fraught political questions – they’re violations of both the letter and spirit of international law.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the U.K. helped to draft, asylum seekers have “the right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions, and the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state.” The U.K., along with Canada and other countries, has reaffirmed the commitment to provide asylum to people facing conditions of danger and deprivation multiple times over the decades.
And while Rwanda has been criticized for human rights abuses, the underlying issue isn’t the state of political freedom in the East African nation: It’s a question about the basic architecture of global human rights. The postwar asylum system, which was designed to prevent the mass suffering of the Second World War, works when countries share responsibility to provide safe harbour to people in need.
As Mr. Trudeau participates in the dialogue in Kigali, he may not feel that the debacle over the U.K.-Rwanda plan has much to do with Canada. After all, he has underscored his commitment to supporting asylum seekers, including directing Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Sean Fraser to “act with urgency to provide resettlement opportunities for people under threat” in his mandate letter in December.
But we are living in turbulent, unpredictable times. The global situation is subject to change, and so too is the domestic landscape. As the PM meets with Commonwealth governments in Kigali, Canadian leaders should take note of the swift backlash against the U.K.’s plan to expel asylum seekers and remember a simple fact: it’s imprudent and impractical to try to make human rights someone else’s problem.
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