Don’t trade people fleeing war ‘like commodities’ – UNHCR

The UN High Commission for Refugees has issued a strongly-worded statement condemning attempts by the UK government to fly asylum-seekers to Rwanda. And while the UK courts have rejected attempts to halt the flights, the European Court of Human Rights has unexpectedly intervened to halt the first scheduled removal of asylum-seekers at least until July. The result has been to raise the international profile of the dangers and difficulties involved in asylum-seeking.

As UK government attempts to deport a first group of asylum seekers to Rwanda clash with local efforts to have the courts approve legal objections to the scheme, the UN’s refugee agency has spoken out strongly against the UK’s plan.

The UK should not be trying to ‘shift asylum responsibilities’ and ‘evade international obligations’, the UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gilliam Triggs has said.

‘People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing,’ Triggs added.

Her comments come as last-minute efforts to prevent the scheme from going ahead were played out in the UK courts.

Perilous

The UNHCR has urged both the UK and Rwanda to re-think their arrangement, warning that instead of deterring refugees from resorting to perilous journeys – the ostensible justification for the plan to outsource the problem to Rwanda – the planned arrangements ‘will only magnify risks, causing refugees to seek alternative routes and exacerbating pressures on frontline states.’

Triggs said that Rwanda had been generous for decades, providing a safe haven for many refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. But most refugees in that country ‘live in camps with limited access to economic opportunities.’

‘UNHCR believes that wealthier nations must show solidarity in supporting Rwanda and the refugees it already hosts, and not the other way around.’

Evading obligations

She said that arrangements transferring refugees and asylum-seekers to third countries without adequate safeguards and standards, amounted merely to shifting asylum responsibilities, evading obligations and action that was contrary ‘to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.’

‘The UK has an obligation to ensure access to asylum for those seeking protection. Those who are determined to be refugees can be integrated, while those who are not and have no other legal basis to stay, can be returned in safety and dignity to their country of origin.’

Instead, however, the UK is ‘adopting arrangements that abdicate responsibility to others and thus threaten the international refugee protection regime which has stood the test of time and saved millions of lives over the decades.’

Humane

‘The UK has supported UNHCR’s work many times in the past and is providing important contributions that help protect refugees and support countries in conflicts such as Ukraine. However, financial support abroad for certain refugee crises cannot replace the responsibility of states and the obligation to receive asylum seekers and protect refugees on their own territory – irrespective of race, nationality and mode of arrival.’

She concluded that while UNHCR recognised the challenges posed by forced displacement, ‘developed countries are host to only a fraction of the world’s refugees and are well resourced to manage claims for asylum in a humane, fair and efficient manner.’

Meanwhile, after two failed attempts in the UK courts to halt the initial flight to Rwanda, the first flight had to be postponed at the last minute thanks to an unexpected intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

The Strasbourg-based court said the flight should wait until British courts have taken a final decision on the legality of the UK’s policy, a matter expected to be argued in July.

Serious issues

Of particular concern to that court was the fate of one Iraqi man, due to be on the flight. The judges said that he faced ‘a real risk of irreversible harm’ if he were taken to Rwanda.

The man, referred to by the court as K N, left Iraq in April 2022, travelling first to Turkey and then across Europe before crossing the English Channel by boat. Alleging that he was in danger in Iraq, he claimed asylum when he arrived in the UK on 17 May.

One of the points made by the European court was that the UK high court had acknowledged ‘that there were potential serious issues with the assessment of Rwanda as a safe third country.’

Torture

The European court also noted that a doctor at the UK’s Immigration Removal Centre had issued a report saying that the Iraqi man ‘might have been a victim of torture’.

The court also considered concerns raised by the UNHCR ‘that asylum-seekers transferred from the UK to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status’.

The court added, ‘In light of the … risk of treatment contrary to the applicant’s Convention rights as well as the fact that Rwanda is outside the Convention legal space (and is therefore not bound by the European Convention on Human Rights) and the absence of any legally enforceable mechanism for the applicant’s return to the UK in the event of a successful merits challenge before the domestic courts, the Court has decided to grant this interim measure to prevent the applicant’s removal until the domestic courts have had the opportunity to first consider those issues.’

Read official statement by the European Court of Human Rights