LONDON/NAIROBI – Britain’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, thwarting the government’s plan to join a handful of nations that process migrants overseas.
The court in London unanimously rejected the government’s appeal against an earlier ruling that migrants could not be sent to Rwanda because it could not be considered a safe third country.
Ahead of an election expected next year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sees the deportation plan as key to his pledge to cut the number of asylum seekers arriving from Europe on small boats.
The policy – which critics say criminalises genuine refugees – aimed to put Britain among a growing number of countries that want to process asylum seekers abroad.
Here are some nations that have taken a similar approach:
Introduced in 2001, Australia’s offshoring asylum programme specifically targets migrants arriving in Australian waters by boat, and is aimed at discouraging refugees from making dangerous ocean crossings and stopping people smuggling.
Asylum seekers have been transferred to offshore detention centres in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the South Pacific island nation of Nauru for their claims to be processed.
The policy – known as the “Pacific Solution” – was dismantled in 2008, but it was revived in 2012 and became more restrictive in 2013, when the government said people arriving by boat would be denied resettlement, even if recognised as refugees.
Since 2012, more than 4,000 asylum seekers, including children, have been sent to detention centres in Manus and Nauru for processing. Many have waited more than five years for their asylum claims to be processed, according to the Refugee Council of Australia (RCA), an NGO.
The offshoring asylum policy has been strongly criticised by the U.N. and aid groups who cite harsh conditions in the centres including abuse by guards and self-harm and depression among detainees.
Fourteen people have died in the island camps, including through suicide and a lack of proper medical care, according to the Human Rights Law Centre. There have also been cases of detainees being killed during protests over camp conditions or in attacks by local people.
Australia closed the facility on Manus Island in 2021 after Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled it was illegal. At the time, about 105 people were detained in the centre, but the government no longer publishes data on how many people remain.
As of Sept. 30, about 15 people were being processed in Nauru, according to official figures.
In 2014, Israel introduced a now-defunct policy to send those rejected for asylum and illegal immigrants – mainly from Sudan and Eritrea – to Rwanda and Uganda for third-country resettlement.
They were given the choice of either being deported back to their country of origin or accepting a payment of $3,500 and a plane ticket to either Uganda or Rwanda, with any who stayed in Israel facing jail.
Israel has said about 20,000 people either returned home or went to one of the East African countries under the policy, which human rights groups criticised for sending refugees to countries where there were no guarantees over their safety.
Research conducted by the University of Oxford and the International Refugee Rights Initiative found that many deported to Rwanda and Uganda had their travel documents taken away on arrival and were held in hotels with armed guards. Most escaped and paid people smugglers to make the dangerous journey to Europe.
The Israeli programme was scrapped in 2019 following its suspension by the country’s Supreme Court.
Which nations have sent asylum seekers overseas?
In early November, Italy said it would build two centres to host up to 36,000 migrants per year in Albania.
The centres, one on the coast for identification and another inland for detention, would be paid for in full by Italy and operate under its jurisdiction, meaning they would be covered by European Union asylum rules.
Meloni said the Albanian facilities should be operational in spring 2024, but the European Commission has yet to say whether the initiative is in line with EU law.
Migration experts say the Italian plan seemed to be different from Britain’s Rwanda deal since people in Albania are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
Austria and Germany have also considered plans to process asylum seekers abroad.
The European Union indirectly supports offshore asylum programmes as part of broader efforts to stop refugees coming across the Mediterranean.
The bloc has paid Turkey billions of dollars to keep refugees from reaching Greece and has funded the Libyan Coast Guard, which pushes migrant boats bound for Europe back to North Africa. It is also helping to fund U.N.-run centres in Niger and Rwanda to process asylum seekers.
Under a U.N. programme called the Emergency Transit Mechanism, more than 3,000 people from Libyan detention centres who were heading for Europe have been transferred to Niger.
A similar scheme sending asylum seekers from Libya to Rwanda began in 2019.
Critics have accused the EU of seeking to curb the number of refugees reaching its shores by outsourcing the crisis to poor African nations.
Asylum seekers in Rwanda have reported that their lives are better than in Libya’s detention centres, but they do not want to stay in Rwanda and ultimately wish to resettle in Europe.
Despite its criticism of Britain, the U.N. says the arrangement is reasonable because it protects migrants from torture, sexual violence, and indefinite detention in Libya.
Denmark, which has introduced increasingly harsh immigration policies over the last decade, passed a law in 2021 allowing refugees to be moved to asylum centres in a third country for claims to be processed. It was in talks with Rwanda about cooperation on migrants but has since paused those plans.
Refugee groups said the new law was irresponsible and showed a lack of solidarity with people in need, and the measure was also criticised by the U.N. and the European Commission.
Danish government officials have said a deal with Rwanda would “ensure a more dignified approach than the criminal network of human traffickers that characterises migration across the Mediterranean today”.
The EU Commission has said relocating refugees outside Europe is “not possible” under current EU rules, but Denmark is exempt from some EU regulations, including asylum standards, due to an opt-out.
This article was updated on November 15, 2023 at 12:22 GMT to include the Rwanda ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court.
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla in Nairobi and Lin Taylor in London; Editing by Helen Popper)