Britain’s harsh welcome for refugees – and what happened when the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was tried before
26 April 2022
13 June 2022
Why this story?
In mid April, the Home Office announced its plan to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, claiming it was a world first which would thwart people smugglers and save lives. Critics lined up to condemn the plan – including the Archbishop of Canterbury Juston Welby, who called it “ungodly” – but the home secretary, Priti Patel, forged on. We soon discovered it was not a world-first plan at all – Israel had sent thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda a few years earlier in a so-called “voluntary departure” scheme that was ultimately abandoned.
We wanted to tell the story of how that scheme fell apart – and what that meant for the people caught up in it. We asked barrister and author Hashi Mohamed, himself a child refugee, to investigate what happened – and find out how the UK arrived at such a plan.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: It’s a Sunday afternoon in mid May. I’m sitting in a hotel room, speaking, with the help of an interpreter, to a thin young man, though not so much younger than I am. His face is all sharp angles, peaks and valleys of cheekbones and tired eyes. His chest curled inwards inside his t-shirt, in a measure of safety, maybe, or of retreat.
His name is Saimon. And at the age of 17 he took the life-changing decision to leave his home country of Eritrea.
Outside the room, the world is barreling heedlessly forward.
At a conservative estimate, there are more than 20 million refugees in the world and more than 4 million asylum seekers. And even though most are living in developing countries, every day the frustration of the world’s richest countries is on display.
A deportation flight has just whisked seven Jamaican nationals out of England.
A search-and-rescue team that’s saved fourteen thousand lives is now facing 20 years’ jail time in Sicily. And the morning of our interview, the headline on the Mail on Sunday is printed in what I’d guess is size two hundred font, and it reads: RWANDA ASYLUM PLAN IS WORKING.
Inside the room, the air is still. We’re suspended in someplace between past and present. It’s a feeling that has gripped me these past few weeks and really knocked the breath out of me a little bit.
Hashi Mohamed: Did the Israelis give you money, like cash?
Saimon Fsaha: Yeah.
Hashi Mohamed: How much did they give you?
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay, translating: Three thousand five hundred dollars.
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay, translating: So they were being told or promised that when they arrived in Rwanda, there would be a refugee camp where they could apply for asylum, seek asylum and that they would be protected during the processing of their asylum procedure.
Luam Belay, translating: Then, from the airport, they were sent to a hotel, and the hotel was paid for the next three nights. And then some immigration officers came to the hotel and they asked him, ‘So where do you want to go?’ And then the Eritrean refugees said there should be a refugee camp here that should receive us and then they said that no, there is no refugee camp. If you have money, if you can somehow make a living then you can just stay here and live here. But we don’t have a refugee camp here, or you go somewhere else.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: I’m having this conversation because the state of things today is triggering the worst kind of déjà vu for me. In the middle of April, the Home Office announced its plan to send asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda.
Priti Patel, in background: …our approach as two outward-looking countries has led to the signing of a new international partnership, which is a world-first. It is a migration and an economic development partnership with the country of Rwanda and the UK…
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: They said this plan would crack down on people-smugglers, that it would save people’s lives. They called it a world-first plan.
But it isn’t a world-first at all. Not by a long shot. And I have to wonder, hearing Saimon’s story, if by telling us it is a world first, the government is toying with us. It’s as if they are saying, ‘don’t bother googling this’.’ Don’t look for any evidence to the contrary’. ‘Don’t search for what happened to the people affected by similar plans in the past’. Because what you’ll find, undoubtedly, is evidence of brutality, unlawfulness, and downright inhumanity.
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay, translating: So they couldn’t even like stay there temporarily, under protection as a refugee. So they didn’t see how they could stay there and live there. And that’s why they decided to leave. That was the only option. They couldn’t like continuously stay in the hotel because it’s very expensive, and they can’t find a job.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: My name is Hashi Mohamed. Like Saimon, I too was once a refugee. I came to London, unaccompanied, as a boy from a Somali family in Kenya.
Today, the UK is my home. I was educated here, I became a barrister here, I married and started a family here. I made a life here. All because the UK did its duty under international law, under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which Britain helped draft – one of its proudest humanitarian achievements.
This is a country I love. But I also have a complicated relationship with it. There wasn’t exactly a lot of help and support after I arrived. Almost thirty years on, I have everything I could have wanted. But that came through my own doing, and a fair amount of luck. I’ve seen how many others have had to fight an uphill battle against our migration policies in order to secure the right just to live and work here.
When the government announced its plan this April to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, being honest, I hesitated…I’ve left the “refugee” label behind, I don’t want to forever be thought of in that way.
But I felt this rising, visceral urge to do something. Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines. So I started digging and I soon discovered: Israel went down this road before, just a few years ago. And it didn’t end well. In fact, it was a disaster.
So in this Slow Newscast from Tortoise, I want to know: what is this Rwanda plan – a clever policy solution, or a cruel political strategy? What happened when it was tried before? And what was it like for the people caught up in it?
[News clips: “Deportation or indefinite detention? That’s the choice facing nearly 40,000 African refugees in Israel…”
“Israel calls them ‘infiltrators’…”
“We are not acting against refugees, we are acting against illegal migrants, who come here, not as refugees, but for work needs.”
“They live with the constant threat of arrest, and deportation.”
“The official Israeli policy is we are uninterested in massive illegal immigration”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: In early 2018, a team of researchers published a harrowing report titled “Better a Prison in Israel Than Dying on the Way.” Its contents are as chilling as its title. The report features testimony from 19 Eritrean refugees who were sent to Rwanda and Uganda as a result of Israel’s “voluntary departure” programme. I reached out to the researchers, and they introduced me to one of them.
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Luam Belay [loo-AHM beh-LIE], a Tigrinya-speaking volunteer for United4Eritrea, interpreted his story for us.
Luam Belay: He was a student back in Eritrea. And then in 2007, they started teaching about political stuff. And then he dared to ask questions, and that was not appreciated. And they were asking him, ‘Why would you even ask us these questions?’ and ‘Why would you be a bad example for the other students?’ And so they started arresting students who would ask questions and be critical of what they were hearing.
So he was thinking, ‘I have to go to a place where I can continue my study.’ So that was his main concern, to complete his studies.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Eritrea was a difficult place then, and it remains still. An autocratic regime, arbitrary killings, no political opposition, and certainly no elections. If he’d stayed, Saimon would’ve been conscripted into the military and become a soldier. He says he thought he’d have to be away from his family either way. He’d heard that it was hard to get to Europe, but it would be easier to go to Israel and start a life there, in a democracy, with the chance of an education.
Luam Belay: So what he knew was that, that it was a democratic state. And so he didn’t worry that he would experience anything bad there.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: The journey there, smuggled over the border from Egypt, was tough. Saimon found himself imprisoned for a month at the start. But he found a job in Israel as a street cleaner, paid in cash.
It wasn’t exactly the education he’d hoped for. But he lived there for six years, on a visa he had to renew every three months.
Until one day, he wasn’t able to.
Luam Belay: When he went to the immigration office to renew this tourist visa kind of paper, they told him, ‘You have three options. Either we deport you back to Eritrea, or you go to Rwanda, or you go to prison.’
Hashi Mohamed: And was that something that they said just to him or to everyone?
Luam Belay: [Tigrinya]
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay: They told all those refugees that had lived more than five years in the country.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: What the UK is now attempting, Israel set a precedent for, less than a decade ago. Though of course, they weren’t the first to try such a scheme, either.
History repeats itself. That’s no surprise to anyone. But normally we get a bit of a time lag before that happens.
Alexander Betts: The UK has proposed essentially deporting asylum seekers arriving across the English Channel to Rwanda. And they’ve claimed it’s very new. But actually there are a significant number of precedents in this area of countries that have tried to offshore asylum seekers and transfer responsibility both for processing those claims, but also for refugee protection as a whole.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: That’s Alexander Betts. He’s Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford.
Alexander Betts: So for instance, if we go back to the 1990s, the United States actually offshored asylum processing for Haitian arrivals to Guantanamo Bay. Move forwards to the early 2000s. And Australia tries to establish what it calls the Pacific Solution, later recast as Operation Sovereign Borders. And through that Australia has essentially taken boat people arriving from a range of countries including Afghanistan, and transferred them forcibly to islands like Nehru, and parts of Papua New Guinea, where they’ve been held in detention almost indefinitely, awaiting assessment of their refugee status claims.
Now those Australian precedents have been widely condemned by human rights organisations. We’ve seen huge examples of abuse, violence, self harm, including by children, and organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, who condemned those Australian examples.
Now, I think one of the main and obvious precedents for this example is that Israel has actually collaborated directly with Rwanda in the past. As we learn more about the UK proposal, we find that basically, they’ve copied something almost exactly from something tried, tested, and undoubtedly failed, that was used by the Israeli government.
Between 2014 and 2017, Israel embarked on what it called a “voluntary deportation” approach, a “voluntary departure” approach. Israel’s approach was to take arrivals from Eritrea and Sudan and return them to either Rwanda or Uganda.
Now, what was interesting about this was they were told they had a choice. They could either stay in a desert detention centre in Israel, or receive a payment of around 3,500 US dollars to go to Rwanda or Uganda.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Saimon was in dire circumstances when he was offered this deal.
Luam Belay: So when he was in this prison for criminals, with very harsh conditions where you barely get fresh air it’s very hot. And yeah, it was so bad that he had to, he had to choose to go to Rwanda.
The conditions forced him to make that choice.
And he doesn’t know what the other five people that were with him, what pushed them to make this choice. But yeah, they had no other choice.
[1:18:35] They were being told or promised that when they arrived in Rwanda, there would be a refugee camp where they could apply for asylum, seek asylum and that they would be protected during the processing of their asylum procedure.
Hashi Mohamed: Did he see himself as settling in Rwanda?
Luam Belay: [Tigrinya]
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay: Eh, no, he couldn’t really imagine to make a living there and to settle in Rwanda, because even before he left Israel, he knew that Rwanda is a country that depends on aid. So apparently they cannot provide opportunities for their own population. So how, how could I find any opportunities there?
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: As soon as they set foot in Rwanda, the whole resettlement idea fell apart.
Saimon and the other men in his company were right to be concerned about Rwanda’s ability to deliver any kind of service to the people coming its way from Israel.
And that’s still a live question: is Rwanda able to provide a haven for asylum seekers who have left behind war zones and broken countries?
A new safety review by the UK government admits some restrictions on freedom of expression. It also recognizes that refugees are prohibited from ‘gatherings based on ethnicity, nationality, or any other sectarian ground,’ but it says it’s unclear how this law is applied in practice. It also says people could face discrimination over their sexuality or gender identity but calls this “not sufficiently serious” to “establish a systemic risk.”
Groups like Amnesty International point to evidence of torture and the use of excessive force by Rwandan police and the UK’s own ambassador for human rights criticised Rwanda’s failure to investigate allegations of torture and trafficking.
The rhetoric surrounding the UK’s Rwanda plan seems, itself, to be of two minds.
David Anderson: There is an element, that perhaps the bark is worse than the bite.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: This is David Anderson QC, who is also a crossbench peer in the House of Lords. He has been involved in many of the debates in Parliament around the implementation of this policy.
David Anderson: Particularly when it comes to the idea that people could be sent to Rwanda to be processed, the government seems to me to be saying two completely inconsistent things about that.
On the one hand, they are signalling to those who wish to come here, that they will be sent to this pretty harsh and unpleasant place. So it will be a very good reason for them not to come over the channel. And yet they were saying to us in Parliament, Rwanda is a wonderful democratic country, it’s racist to suggest that the treatment people will have there or the opportunities they will have there are any less than they would have in the UK.
Those two things are not compatible.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: But again, it’s not as if we don’t have recent, vivid examples to consider. Regardless of what the government says, we know Rwanda does not afford the same liberties or opportunities as the United Kingdom. That is made hauntingly clear in Saimon’s story. And those of the other young Eritreans who made the journey.
The Israeli academics who introduced us to Saimon also spoke with 18 other Eritrean men who were sent from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda. From the moment their flights landed, the men were pulled into a nightmare. We’ve asked an actor to read from their testimonies.
Isayas, voiceover: “I landed in Rwanda. We got off the plane… someone who works at the airport took all of our documents. We asked him why? They responded that they’ll give us something else instead… but they never gave us any documents… Once you leave Israel, no one knows who you are… They put us in a prison they called a hotel, a guard kept watch over us so we don’t leave… But the State of Israel says that you can get documents and receive asylum and that you’ll have a good life, like a dream.”
Hashi Mohamed: So when you are getting on the plane, you turn up in Rwanda – just tell us about that process now.
Luam Belay: [Tigrinya]
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay: They arrived in Rwanda and they were received by these immigration officers that would take away all their passports. Because if they were going to receive money from Israel they would have to have some proof that they actually arrived in Rwanda. So they would take the passports.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: It might not surprise you to learn, those passports were not returned, nor were those promises kept that were made back in Israel. Here’s Alexander Betts again.
Alexander Betts: What we saw in Israel’s attempt to relocate refugees to Rwanda is that the Rwandan government didn’t implement on the ground in the way that Israel had envisaged. In fact, both in Rwanda and Uganda, there’s some published evidence that at the local level, there was some support and even facilitation for some of those people to be able to move onwards to Europe.
Counterintuitive from a human rights perspective, really problematic in terms of actually meaning that those people stay for a very short period of time in Rwanda, and then try to move onwards with smugglers to Europe.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: There are of course notable differences between Israel’s stated intentions and those of the UK’s Home Office. At the time of its deportation program, Israeli leaders minced no words about how they felt about their refugee population. One promise made by Interior Minster Eli Yishai comes to mind: “We will make the lives of infiltrators miserable until they leave,” he said in 2012.
Britain’s approach, on the other hand, has been superficially genteel.
Boris Johnson: “Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not…”
Priti Patel: “…and I think it’s important just to say to everyone in the House right now, you cannot put a price on saving human lives…”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: But isn’t the effect the same? To create a hostile environment for people seeking asylum, and then to send people back to the turmoil they’ve just escaped? Or to send them elsewhere, where a new set of hardships awaits?
Sigal Kook Avivi: In 2015 we asked for freedom of information requests asking the government how many asylum seekers had been deported, they said that over 6500 people were deported directly to Eritrea. We don’t know what has happened to them.
We only have a few testimonies of those who managed to re-escape. And a lot of them were deported to Sudan. We have testimonies of people that arrived in Sudan were either incarcerated, tortured. And we also have testimonies of people that were arrived Sudan and were murdered on that same day.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Sigal Kook Avivi is a prominent human rights activist in Tel Aviv who petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to end the deportation program.
Sigal Kook Avivi: And we had to understand happening in Rwanda and Uganda. So we had already by that point, testimonies from people arriving to Rwanda being met at the airport by officials that did not wear uniform, but they had all their paperwork, knowing exactly when they would come meeting them before the border control.
So somebody let them in. We’re not talking about private people, somebody let them in the airport, meeting the asylum seekers coming off the plane, escorting them to take their luggage, and sneaking them out of the airport without going through Border Patrol.
Taking all their paperwork, meaning that these people were at this point in No Man’s Land, had no identity, nothing. They had nothing to show their identity, nothing to show the fact that they’re asylum seekers, and to show that they were coming from Israel, nothing.
These were like the invisible people and therefore very frightened people, and people very easy to manipulate. Those in Rwanda those arriving in one there were taken to from the airport directly to a villa in Kigali. They were kept there in the villa in Kigali. Sometimes they were guarded, and sometimes they were scared not to leave the villa. And they were in the villa between 24 hours to 48 hours.
Luam Belay: When they went out to see how the living conditions could be in Kigali, they quickly realised that it’s impossible to find work. There were, there seemed to be a lot of people who don’t have work and they also knew that there was no refugee camp where they could apply for asylum.
So they couldn’t even like stay there temporarily under protection as a refugee. So they didn’t see how they could stay there and live there. And that’s why they decided to leave.
That was the only option.
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay: Okay so, always his intention was to reach a democratic country.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: The UK might have a memorandum of understanding with Rwanda, but this isn’t just a Rwanda plan. It’s a Uganda plan. A Congo plan. Sudan plan. A Libya plan. All the places these people will have to pass through to get to safety and stability.
Luam Belay: There was a guard and this guard, I mean, he’s actually not allowed to help them get out of the country, but like they gave him some money. And so he took them to the border and it took four hours from Kigali.
So when the, like this guard, he took them to the border between Rwanda and Uganda, and then they crossed by foot. And then in Uganda, they stayed for one week. And from there they continued to Sudan.
It was a very difficult this journey because they didn’t have any papers, right, and what they experienced in Rwanda was that wherever you want to go whatever you want to do you have to pay money. And that continued like in the next country in Uganda is the same like they always have to pay someone to be able to pass.
Sigal Kook Avivi: All their testimonies, all their testimonies, I called it a ‘copy-paste testimony’.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: This is the Israeli activist Sigal Kook Avivi again.
Sigal Kook Avivi: Doesn’t matter whether it’s Eritreans or Sudanese, whether it’s in 2014, or testimony from 2016, or testimony from 2017. They’re all the same.
They were all deported the same way taken by a minivan. They told me how much they had to pay the drivers. And they told me the same hours of driving the trip to the border. They all described it the same, and then specific people were waiting for them in Uganda, and again, taking them to the city in Kampala.
But when they arrived in Uganda, they were asking, ‘Where is this guy with this picture?’ So they knew exactly who would be arriving. Again, they would take them and then they would take them to two hotels. And in the hotels they would be met by smugglers.
And they were told that ‘You have no paper, you’re in danger. You would be hunted by locals, hunted by the parade, police,’ which is all true. And therefore you should start leaving, and they would actually smuggle them.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: What Sigal describes – that’s exactly what happened to Saimon. From Rwanda, to Uganda, and on to South Sudan.
Luam Belay: South Sudan is very dangerous, especially because the Eritrean regime is also somehow like involved there with the militaries. And there are checkpoints everywhere, and if you don’t have papers, it’s very dangerous. And so that was very dangerous and Sudan was also very, very hard to navigate because there are also like Eritrean spies that are operating there.
And he was a political refugee, he was criticising the regime, right. So they were very scared and had to be very careful. And navigating it also at the time the protests started in Sudan. So yeah, they had to be very careful.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: From South Sudan, he continued on to Sudan; from Sudan, northwest to Libya. All the way, paying people to help him; all the way, watching people he knew fight for their lives, and losing. All the way facing unthinkable cruelty.
One man said this about the journey from South Sudan to Sudan…
Gabriel, voiceover: “This was the worst road in our journey…. The road is full of thieves… They just want our money… They don’t know if you are a human being or an animal… All the time you have to pay. If not, they kill you, beat you, throw you in the sand… Many people died this way, people who were in Israel with us and we still don’t [know] if they are alive.”
Sigal Kook Avivi: They were on the way of course, tortured, sold for for their organs, sold for slavery. Many died because of you know, they didn’t drink water, dehydrated and the food, we know of thousands and thousands and thousands that died in the desert. Just to throw you a number, one of the testimonies of the asylum seekers in Germany said “we left ten, we arrived three”.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Through the Sahara on to Libya, survivors of the journey recall horrific disregard for their lives.
Tesfay, voiceover: “Two were sick… After they died… We said ‘people are dead’ [they said,] ‘why should we care?!… God willing you will die too’… After that we threw [the dead] to the floor, that’s it, [they] didn’t even give us a blanket, [I swear] on my mother.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Oppressive heat and unspeakable cruelty…trauma after trauma.
Kiflom, voiceover: No water. Very very hot… We ran out of food. One young woman and one young man died. There is a lot of sun… This is why people died… We buried them… on the way… I don’t want to remember this. It’s hard to think about this… At night it comes to us in our head, it repeats… It wakes me up, what I saw… I don’t want to remember this… I want to close that door.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: En route through Libya, Saimon himself was nearly left for dead.
Luam Belay: He fell off the truck and people that were driving the car
Hashi Mohamed: Because he fell off?
Luam Belay: [Tigrinya: Because you fell off?]
Hashi Mohamed: Because you were not being careful? They got angry?
Luam Belay: [Tigrinya.]
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya]
Luam Belay: And he couldn’t move both his legs. And that was because, because he was beaten so badly, not from the fall. So he fell off the truck. And then the people, the drivers came and then they beat him and and and they beat him so much that he couldn’t move both his legs.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: In Libya, human traffickers brought the men to camps, where they were jailed unless they could pay their ransom. Most of the men described being held in warehouses without electricity where several hundred people would be kept in a single room.
Habtom, voiceover: “If there are new people, there is food, if there are no people, no food. One bathroom for 600 people… No electricity… There is beating, people die… There is no hospital, no nothing. There were women and children there too.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: One man recalls being detained in a larger warehouse.
Brehane, voiceover: “I was in Libya for three months… 1,500 people in a room… People are sick, you don’t shower for days, you don’t go to the bathroom… I had a little bit of money, thanks be to God, but [people] who didn’t have… Every day, they would beat them… They don’t give them food, no shower… If they don’t pay… God help them… A human being is not a human being in Libya.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: I know there’s more Saimon could tell me. But I’m not sure I can push him. For one thing, he could endanger himself and his family by speaking publicly about some of the things he experienced.
And I know it isn’t easy. And as Sigal told me, no one who’s survived this journey really wants to talk about everything they witnessed.
Sigal Kook Avivi: I always ask them, Why did you leave? It was important for me to establish the fact that they didn’t leave really voluntarily.
And I had this specific hand gesture they did all to their heads to their forecast to their foreheads. And they would say, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know why I broke and left. I don’t know I don’t understand it. I’m in a very bad position here. And they also wanted to send and they knew some of them were willing to record messages in Tigrinya and in Arabic, telling the communities in Israel do whatever you have to do stay in any prison you have to stay don’t leave for this journey.
This journey is horrible, as sometimes they even did this from Sweden. And the community would like to say you’re in Sweden, man, why are you saying this? You know, you’re in a good situation.
They say the journey has caused us such trauma that I, we truly recommend staying in Israel. So they don’t like to speak about it.
Also, they don’t like to speak about it because some of them had to do unlawful things, on the way. I don’t blame them. They had to survive, but they did unlawful things. And their life is useless. And many of them have been raped, including the men. And you have to understand this as a very traditional community. They hardly speak about it. So it’s very, very difficult for them to speak, very difficult.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: As the UK Government has given us its drip-drip-drip of details surrounding the Rwanda plan, plenty has been made of its unfeasibility. Setting aside the lawfulness and humanity of the plan, there’s the exorbitant cost of pulling it off.
The most “successful” precedent, and I’m doing air quotes here, is the Australian model, which cost 3.4 million Australian dollars per person – that’s 2.2 million pounds. If the UK government is willing to commit to this plan, it strikes me as unlikely that the UK taxpayer will be equally enthusiastic.
Surely the people who formulated this plan gave careful consideration to all its international precedents. We spoke with Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, Vincent Biruta, to ask him whether the partnership agreement with the UK had included a discussion of Israel’s voluntary departure scheme.
Vincent Biruta: We considered that those are two different programs. And the one we’re talking about today is a comprehensive program, that will be implemented over five years. And it has that integration component. But even for those migrants who you are referring to who were relocated from Israel, the plan is not to keep all these people in, like in prison, they will be free to move around, they’ll be free to go back to their countries of origin. And for those who would have the opportunity to migrate legally to other countries, all this will be facilitated.
So we should not consider the program we had in place with Israel as a failure. It was not a failure, because the objectives of both work programs are different.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: How different were the objectives, really? Minister Biruta said the Rwandans were at least aware of the shortcomings of the previous partnership and taking steps to avoid them this time around…
Vincent Biruta: I was not involved in the Israel program, I know what is in this new program and we have worked on it, we have discussed all these aspects, and they will have in place a monitoring mechanism which will allow us to adjust whenever needed to make sure that we the program is successful.
Otherwise, it is, we cannot compare both programs.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Many of us have asked: is this all just a cynical bit of theatre? Will anyone really be put on a flight and sent out of the UK? Or is this just the red meat of populism, a useful way to signal to anti-immigration voters that the Government shares their priorities? Or perhaps to lament a cabal of “lefty lawyers” standing in the way?
There’s no doubt that this hardline politics of immigration is ruthlessly effective in dividing voters and hardening support with the most uncompromising conservatives. The polling that came out on the day of the Rwanda announcement showed only 35 per cent of the population supported the policy – but amongst Conservatives – and people who voted for Brexit, six out of 10 backed it.
So it’s no wonder the Government reaches for the Rwanda Plan every time they are in political trouble and need to change the subject.
Shami Chakrabarti: The irony is that Boris Johnson and Priti Patel keep having a go at activist lawyers like me. I say, ‘Guilty.’
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, labour peer and human rights campaigner, holds a grim view of the intent behind the plan.
Shami Chakrabarti: What the government wants to do is to replace the rule of law, whereby every refugee and asylum seeker is treated equally and fairly and have the claim considered, they want to replace that with just their discretion. They’ll decide who was a good refugee and who’s a bad refugee, who’s worthy we’ll pick which conflicts, which countries, which races, which nationalities, we choose. Hong Kong dissenters, good, Ukrainian refugees good, Afghans, Syrians, you take my point, and instead of having one law for everyone they want to have, they want to make up the rules as they go along.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: So while we’ve been investigating this story, the day-to-day news has gathered pace. The Prime Minister was in trouble over breaking the law on Covid restrictions, and up popped another Rwanda announcement.
[Clip: The first flight carrying asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda is expected to take place in two weeks, the UK government has said. Under a plan announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson…”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: The first people to be sent to Rwanda are scheduled to leave on Tuesday the 14th of June – if you’re listening to this podcast as it’s released, that’s tomorrow.
We’ve been speaking to sources with knowledge of the multiple legal challenges against the imminent implementation of this policy. Who say that those challenges are based on the lawfulness of the removal, how the policy has been introduced, and the degrading and inhumane treatment that these refugees may face when the reach Rwanda. Remember Britain is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. The deal with Rwanda is not a treaty and does not supersede that duty to recognise and protect people.
Boris Johnson: “And yes of course there are going to be legal eagles, liberal left lawyers who will try and make this difficult, we always knew this was going to happen. But this is a very sensible thing. ”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: For critics of the government, even if it is all just a show – that doesn’t detract from the policy’s essential cruelty. And it doesn’t diminish what it says about the Government that is driving it. And, according to Lord Anderson, what that says about us.
David Anderson: I think at the end of the day, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror and say that if governments are going to do brutal things, it’s because there are sufficient numbers of people in the democracy who approve of those brutal things. And it’d be quite difficult, I think to deny when you look at the levels of support the government has, that there is at least a substantial body of opinion that thinks this is a sensibly robust way of dealing with an intractable problem.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: It may be misplaced, but Britain still has a reputation for compassion. Listen to Sigal, the human rights activist…
Sigal Kook Avivi: I remember once an asylum seeker here in Israel told me he, he took pictures when he was in the Holot detention centre. And he hardly took pictures of the facility. He took pictures, beautiful pictures. I remember when he was asked, why don’t you take pictures of the detention centre? And he told and his answer was, “countries learn bad things from one another”. And the idea that the UK, of all places, is trying to send, and refugees that have gone through such horrific life experiences are going to be deported. It feels like I’m in an endless cycle, it doesn’t end, it will never end.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Saimon arrived to Europe in October of 2015. He came to Europe on a small boat – precisely the kind that would make him “illegal” in the eyes of the UK government, and that would mark him as a candidate for deportation to Rwanda, under Priti Patel’s policy.
Saimon had been beaten while he was in Libya and he had to be carried aboard. There were 280 people on the boat that left Libya, and they had to be rescued as they crossed the Mediterranean.
Today, Saimon lives in Germany, in Dresden – that’s where we met, in that airless hotel room. He works at a printing plant – and he has refugee status. It’s not a comfortable life, and still he cannot really plan for a future. But he is at least safe. Many who left Israel for Rwanda did not survive.
Yohanes, voiceover: “I saw 400 people inside… the water, they drowned. I saw people got in and all of them died on the boat, I saw… Nine boats went into the sea, we were before this ship, many children died, I remember… I don’t have the strength anymore to talk about it.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Tortoise editor, Dave Taylor, spoke for this podcast to people with knowledge of what has happened inside Priti Patel’s Home Office. He’s here in the studio with me now.
Hashi Mohamed: Hi, Dave.
Dave Taylor: Hi, Hashi. Yes, the picture we get from inside the Home Office surprised me a bit. There’s definitely a tension between officials and ministers, and years of failed policies mean there’s not exactly massive confidence that the Rwanda Plan will work.
But a source told us that they didn’t believe this idea was “just a gimmick”. The Home Office does really want to find, as they put it, “genuine durable solutions.”
They told us about Patel’s impatience and frustration in meetings about asylum. How she believed that the small boats crossing the Channel were “a tremendous embarrassment” because, to her mind, the public saw them and just wondered why the Home Office wasn’t able to put an end to it and why the British government seemed ‘useless’ in the face of it.
So yes, there’s this tension between ministers and officials. But I also thought a really important distinction emerged in the way senior officials look at the Rwanda plan and the government’s ideas for dealing with small boats in the English Channel.
We’ve been told senior officials did fight against Patel’s plan to use the Navy to turn back small boats in the English Channel last year.
Hashi Mohamed: Why did they do that? What was the reason why they fought that plan?
Dave Taylor: They believed it would have been illegal, unsafe and unworkable. Patel wanted to go ahead anyway, but then abandoned the policy quite recently in the face of a legal defeat.
Hashi Mohamed: But now they are obviously trying this Rwanda plan. Do we get a sense of officials supporting this plan?
Dave Taylor: The way one source put it to me: “A million things can go wrong…and it may not work, but nothing else is working…” It “should be given a sporting chance”.
Hashi Mohamed: Okay, in trying to give this a sporting chance, did you get a sense of how much preparation, how much research and work went into thinking through the consequences of the Rwanda plan.
Dave Taylor: It became clear they’d been on a fact finding mission to Rwanda last November. We learned that the Home Office visited a UNHCR facility. It’s about 40 miles outside of Kigali, where people who had been rescued from hellish conditions in Libya were housed in huts and given medical support – in the hope they may be found refuge in other countries.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Vincent Biruta has spoken widely about Rwanda’s goodwill towards asylum-seekers, a sentiment he echoed in conversation with us.
Vincent Biruta: We have a deep connection to the plight of migrants. We have here more than 130,000 refugees, most of them from Burundi and DRC. We have refugees from Afghanistan. We have some seekers who are being evacuated from Libya. We are hosting them in an Emergency Transit Center, while they wait for find countries where they will be located. So Rwanda has been in this migration partnership for a while if I may say.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: What Biruta describes all sounds a bit vague, but the promise on the face of it, at least is for something better than what happened with Israel’s asylum-seekers…
Vincent Biruta: On arrival these migrants will be taken to a reception centre where they will be guided through all the options in terms of submitting asylum applications and other administrative matters.
So they are temporarily hosted in an accommodation facility while their application is being considered. So there will be a transit centre where they will be received for their applications to be processed. After this, those who will be found to have a genuine asylum claim, we offer them an indefinite right to stay in Rwanda and work to integrate them into a local community.
And we will start implementing the program which will be tailored to the needs of everyone, for those who need higher education, those who need to go through vocational training, and so on and so forth.
And we create job opportunities for them as well.
Hashi Mohamed: So David is still with me here. David, we’ve been told that the UK will pay Rwanda £120 million over five years and that Rwanda and the UK will monitor the asylum seekers together. What are you reflections on that following your conversations?
Dave Taylor: Yes, the way it was put to us by a source with knowledge of the negotiations, was that the Rwandans were not “wholly mercenary” about the scheme – it’s not just about the money. And that they had some empathy for human suffering because of their own history.
Our source also said there would be British oversight, they said: “it’s not in anybody’s interests if this thing is just a complete fiasco and a demonstrable breach of human rights. The Home Office does not want the thing to fall flat.”
The other thing they said, I guess, is “The big thing now is how many will the Home Office manage to get over there…” they said, and… “There’s obviously a hell of a difference if you are sending a dozen a month or a thousand a month.”
Hashi Mohamed: But I’m curious though, did you have a conversation with them about how the whole Rwanda plan came about, where was it given birth, if you like?
Dave Taylor: Yes, and our source said: “It definitely came from the Australian experience – they intercepted boats coming from Indonesia and either turned the boats round or they parked them on Christmas Island and then shipped them off to Nauru (NAA-OO-ROO) and Papua New Guinea.” There was one other thing we learned. It’s pretty stunning.
A senior source told us: “I don’t think the Israeli scheme was studied. I’m not even sure we were aware of it…ministers weren’t aware of it…that didn’t come up.”
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: So where are we? Since April, everything that’s been said publicly about the Rwanda plan has sounded draconian – to the ears of this refugee. Even if these two countries provide all that they’ve promised – and completely turn recent history on its head – at the heart of this is a failure of the UK to fulfil its international obligations.
And an inability to show basic decency.
We now know: the Rwanda plan was inspired by Australia’s approach to offshoring its asylum responsibilities; that British ministers didn’t even seem to know about the disastrous Israel-Rwanda scheme; and that Priti Patel’s own Home Office has been divided at a very senior level over this policy…
And the more I learn about Saimon and all the others who went through Israel’s deportation scheme, the more I realise: that’s not even half of it.
Because for the people who are affected by the new Rwanda scheme, the story will not end when they leave the UK. And it very likely won’t end when they arrive in Rwanda. If the past shows us anything, it could end at the hands of human traffickers, or in the grip of slavery. It could end in the Sahara, dying of thirst, or in the Mediterranean, by drowning.
It could end with untreated illness or wounds, after rape, torture, loss of limbs.
All this, after our UK government claims it is offering a fresh start.
I’ve heard these stories of the people caught up in the last Rwanda deportation scheme, the one that Israel had to abandon after legal challenges in its courts – and I think of the people who come across the Channel to England.
The overwhelming majority of them from Iraq or Yemen or Syria or Eritrea – are actually granted asylum.
So it’s not that the UK is denying that they are genuine refugees, it’s simply this: that we have no wish to help. We don’t want the problem and we wish only to wash our hands of this responsibility.
It leaves me sitting with this question: When did we become too cruel to care?
Like Sigal, I can’t help but feel like we’re stuck in an endless loop, where harsh policies get recycled by one government after another. Maybe this is no surprise, but the politicians seem much more interested in hanging on to their supporters than finding fair solutions.
And after our interview, I wondered if Saimon was feeling caught in an endless cycle of his own, telling his story, while governments like mine fail to heed the cautionary tale.
Tape: Post-interview chat
Hashi Mohamed: You know when you tell your story, what do you hope people who hear it gain from it when you tell your story? You know, what do you hope it achieves?
Saimon Fsaha: If I say with my history, different people, it can maybe – it’s not all, but some from my history, it can help other people.
Hashi Mohamed: Other people who have a similar situation to you.
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: I was impressed with Saimon. His composure, his fortitude. He’s spent so much of his adult life just trying to get settled, to start over. Now he’s in Dresden at the beginning – or at a beginning – at age 31. But he’s still young. He can make so much of his life if he wants, starting now.
And I admire his attitude, and his desire to help people. He’s an optimist, even if his outlook is forever stained by the unnecessary trauma he had to go through. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his answer…
Hashi Mohamed: Will it work? Will such a policy work? Because apparently Israel is not using it anymore. Do you? Does he think that it’s a good policy that could work for a country?
Saimon Fsaha: [Tigrinya.]
Luam Belay: He thinks it’s like… This is as unlikely to work out as it would be that there would be a democracy in Eritrea. [Laughs.]
Hashi Mohamed, narrating: Our special thanks go to Shahar Shoham, Lior Birger, and Liat Bolzman, authors of the report “Better a Prison in Israel than Dying on the Way.”
This episode was produced by Morgan Childs. The sound designer was Mau Loseto. And the editor was David Taylor.
How we got here
At the beginning of 2021, Tortoise examined the UK’s approach to immigration and asylum. Small boats crossing the Channel were increasing and the government’s rhetoric was hardening. We revealed new details about the way that asylum seekers were being held in a former military camp in inhumane conditions, and that the system for considering asylum claims was mired in delay. And we found that although the small boats in the Channel were very visible – and a source of embarrassment for the UK government – the numbers seeking asylum in the UK were much lower than in other European countries like Germany and Italy and absolutely dwarfed by the efforts of countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan which neighbour war-torn Syria.
Since then, every time the government hit political difficulty, it seemed to try to change the subject with another hardline immigration policy: sending the navy into the English Channel to push small boats back towards France; shipping asylum seekers offshore to an island in the south Pacific. Eventually, the Home Office settled on the idea of a deal with Rwanda to take tens of thousands of people – people who the government declared to be “illegal” migrants. They called it a world first, they insisted it was a compassionate policy, while critics said it was the opposite.
We had more questions: why was it that Britain, which helped draft the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, seemed to want to turn away from its legal humanitarian duties? What is the Rwanda plan – a clever policy solution, or a cruel political strategy? What happened when it was tried before? And what was it like for the people caught up in it? Above all else, what does the policy say about the way “global” Britain faces the world?
Our reporting took us inside the Home Office and the Rwandan government. We have worked with Israeli academics whose research exposed the terrible failings of the previous Rwanda plan. And we met a man who had endured the consequences. David Taylor, Editor
- ‘Better a prison in Israel than dying on the way’ – read the academic study which gathered testimonies of refugees ‘voluntarily’ deported to Rwanda.
- The World Migration Report from the UN’s International Organisation for Migration has the most up-to-date global data.
- The University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory is a goldmine of contemporary resources on British immigration.
- People have always moved. As Khalid Koser, author of ‘International Migration: A Very Short Introduction’ puts it: “The history of migration begins with the origins of mankind.”
Does Britain have an answer to immigration now?
Freedom of movement is over, but what does that really mean for Britain?
Crossing the Channel
A former army base outside Folkestone, Kent, is now the epicentre of the migration story
A son of Afghanistan
The story of Rohullah Yakobi, and a 20-year war
Stopping the people smugglers
How can Britain and France stop the lucrative, and deadly, trade in human lives in small boats across the English Channel?