LGBTQ+ asylum seekers rights threatened under the UK-Rwandan asylum partnership
Author: Salomé Rizk
Department: LGBTQ+ Team
On 14th of April 2022, the government of the United Kingdom (UK) published a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Rwanda “for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement” (hereafter asylum partnership agreement)(UK Government, 2022A). The aim of this agreement is to transfer all asylum seekers illegally entering the UK territory, since the first of January 2022, to Rwanda. In exchange for its participation in the migration program Rwanda will reportedly receive 158$ million (Al Jazeera, 2022A). UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, claimed this policy will prevent the criminal smuggling trade, offer the opportunity for asylum seekers to find a “new and prosperous” life in Rwanda, and ultimately deter the illegal migration to the UK (Limb, 2022).
Yet many critics condemned this agreement. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) called it “cruelty itself” (Ahmed & McDonell, 2022) and denounced Rwanda for the reported poor human rights track record. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) condemned the partnership and called it “egregious breach of international law” and “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention” (Al Jazeera, 2022B). International lawyers accused the agreement of violating numerous international refugees and human rights principles. The aim of the agreement is to transfer the refugees who entered illegally, yet, Article 31(1) of 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to Status Refugees, to which the UK is state party, provides that states should not penalize refugees “on account of their illegal entry or presence” (Chidombwe, 2022; UNCHR convention).
Another principle that is under threat is the principle of non-refoulment, a cornerstone of international refugee law. Under this principle, which is recognized as jus cogens (i.e legally binding), a State shall not “expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 33 (1) 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to Status Refugees). The UK itself raised concerns over human rights violations (Hinton, 2022), however, it has denied the concerns that the principle of non-refoulement be violated in the agreement (UK government, 2022B). Yet, evidence of human rights violations has been reported by many NGOs, which denounce the lack of freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings, lack of fair trials, and gender/sex-based discrimination among others (HRW, 2020, Amnesty International, 2021).
Furthermore, some asylum seekers are part of minority groups making them more vulnerable than others in Rwanda such as members of the LGBTQ+ community. In June 2021, Rwanda LGBTQ+ activists organized their first pride in Kigali, where Reuters collected a number of testimonies that denounce the lack of protection and help LGBTQ+ receive from the state. Many reportedly claim they face eviction, expulsion, and violent threats which sometimes force them to flee the country (Harrisberg, 2021). Additionally, the government of the UK acknowledged that LGBTQ+ members are under threat of persecution in Rwanda and the ill-treatment LGBTQ+ individual receive from the government, yet, UK officials believe there is not enough evidence that points toward systematic discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ individuals, meaning they are still included in the asylum agreement partnership (Syal & Siddique, 2022; UK Government, 2022B). It is important to note that members of the LGBTQ+ community are not the only vulnerable group, for example, evidence of discrimination against certain religious beliefs such as members of the Muslim community could face similar discrimination in Rwanda (Freedom House, 2022).
Despite the refusal from the High Court of London to stop the first transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda planned for the 14th of June (Taylor, & Syal, 2022), some legal rebuttals were made against the partnership at the European level. Indeed, on the 14th of June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), ruled that an asylum seeker subject to the transfer scheme raised concerns about the partnership and added that the British judges did not properly look at the living conditions in Rwanda (Casciani, 2022). The case is set to be reviewed with a verdict toward the end of July (Casciani, 2022).
Although this allows more time for the asylum seekers to build a case in their defense, the UK vowed to continue scheduling transfer flights to Rwanda, despite being party to the ECHR (Associated Press, 2022).
Although the future of this asylum partnership is uncertain, it highlights the precarious safety of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly from minority groups, and the lack of human rights protections they receive not only in the UK but also in other countries such as Denmark is currently reviewing similar asylum partnership policies with Rwanda (Reuters, 2022).
Ahmed, Y. & McDonell, E. (14 April 2022), “UK Plan to Ship Asylum Seekers to Rwanda is Cruelty Itself”, Human Rights Watch, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/14/uk-plan-ship-asylum-seekers-rwanda-cruelty-itself
Al Jazeera (A), (19 May 2022), “UK to send asylum seekers to Rwanda under controversial new deal” retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/4/14/uk-to-sign-deal-to-send-male-channel-refugees-to-rwanda-reports
Al Jazeera (B), (19 May 2022), “Rwanda to get first batch of asylum seekers from UK this May”, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/19/rwanda-to-get-first-batch-of-asylum-seekers-from-uk-this-may#:~:text=In%20April%2C%20both%20countries%20signed,to%20the%20eastern%20African%20state.&text=Rwanda%20expects%20the%20first%20group,a%20government%20spokesperson%20has%20said.
Amnesty International, (n.d), “RWANDA 2021” from https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/africa/east-africa-the-horn-and-great-lakes/rwanda/report-rwanda/
Casciani, D. (15 June 2022), “Rwanda asylum flight cancelled after legal action”, BBC, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-61806383
Chidombwe, N., (31 May 2022), “The Legality Of The Asylum Partnership Agreement Between The UK And Rwanda Under International Law”, Human Right Pulse, from https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/the-legality-of-the-asylum-partnership-agreement-between-the-uk-and-rwanda-under-international-law#:~:text=Rwanda%27s%20human%20rights%20track%20record,non%2Drefoulement%20under%20international%20law.
Freedom House, (2022), “Rwanda”, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/rwanda/freedom-world/2022
Government of the United Kingdom (A), (14 April 2022), “Memorandum of Understanding between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement” retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/memorandum-of-understanding-mou-between-the-uk-and-rwanda/memorandum-of-understanding-between-the-government-of-the-united-kingdom-of-great-britain-and-northern-ireland-and-the-government-of-the-republic-of-r
Government of the United Kingdom (B), (11 May 2022), “Country policy and information note: Rwanda, assessment, May 2022 (accessible)” from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rwanda-country-policy-and-information-notes/country-policy-and-information-note-rwanda-assessment-may-2022-accessible
Harrisberg, K., (29 June 2021), “’Brave and hopeful’ LGBT+ Rwandans prepare for their first Pride” from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-rwanda-lgbt-rights-trfn-idUSKCN2E526F
Hinton, M. (15 April 2022), “Govt signed refugee deal months after condemning Rwanda for human rights abuses”, Leading Britain’s Conversation, from https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/govt-rwanda-refugee-human-rights-abuse/
Human Rights Watch (HRW), (9 July 2020), “Human Rights Watch Submission to the Universal Periodic Review of Rwanda” from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/09/human-rights-watch-submission-universal-periodic-review-rwanda
Limb, M. (28 April 2022), “UK-Rwanda migration plan fails to safeguard refugees’ medical care, say campaigners”, retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/377/bmj.o1087.full
Reuters, (20 April 2022), “Denmark in talks with Rwanda on transfer of asylum-seekers”, from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/denmark-talks-with-rwanda-transfer-asylum-seekers-2022-04-20/
Syal, R. & Siddique, H., (10 May 2022), “Home Office admits LGBTQI+ refugees could be persecuted if sent to Rwanda”, The Guardian, from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/may/10/home-office-admits-gay-lesbian-refugees-could-be-persecuted-sent-rwanda
Taylor, D. & Syal, R. (10 June 2022), “UK deportation flight to Rwanda can go ahead, high court judge rules”, The Guardian, from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/jun/10/uk-deportation-flight-rwanda-can-go-ahead-high-court-judge-rules
The Associated Press, (15 June 2022), “U.K. vows more Rwanda deportation flights after legal setback”, NPR, from https://www.npr.org/2022/06/15/1105161913/u-k-cancels-first-flight-to-deport-asylum-seekers-to-rwanda?t=1655481358481
United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees” from https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10