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Bishops unite to condemn ‘shameful’ Rwanda plan for asylum-seekers

13 June 2022


A protester against the Rwanda plan outside the Home Office on Monday holds up a placard that mirrors a line from the Archbishop of York’s Easter sermon: “We can do better than this”

A protester against the Rwanda plan outside the Home Office on Monday holds up a placard that mirrors a line from the Archbishop of York’s Easter serm...

THE Government’s “offshoring” policy, under which the first people were due to be deported to Rwanda as early as Tuesday, “should shame us as a nation”, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and 23 other bishops, have said.

The policy was included in the Nationality and Borders Act, which came into law in April despite objections and attempted amendments from bishops and other peers (News, 29 April). It was explicitly criticised by Archbishop Welby in his Easter sermon (News, 22 April), and reportedly by the Prince of Wales last week, who is said to have called it “appalling” in a private conversation.

Last week, campaigners failed to win an injunction against the policy in the High Court, which ruled that it was in the “public interest” for the Government to carry it out. An appeal on Monday was rejected for the same reason. A full hearing on whether the policy is lawful is due to take place next month.

In a letter published in The Times on Tuesday, the full complement of bishops who sit in the House of Lords have written: “Whether or not the first deportation flight leaves Britain today for Rwanda, this policy should shame us as a nation.” The letter continues: “The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries.”

The Government has argued that the scheme will thwart people smugglers by discouraging asylum-seekers from crossing the Channel. The bishops write, however, that the only way to “reduce dangerous journeys” and fight “evil trafficking” is to provide safe, legal safe routes to the UK.

The people being deported “are the vulnerable that the Old Testament calls us to value” and have had no chance to appeal or see their families in the UK, they write. “We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law — which protects the right to claim asylum. . . Deportations — and the potential forced return of asylum seekers to their home countries — are not the way. This immoral policy shames Britain.”

On Friday, up to 130 of people were given notice of their imminent deportation to Rwanda. Originally, 37 people were due to be on the first flight on Tuesday, but this was reduced over the weekend and Monday through individual legal challenges. The BBC reported a Home Office source saying that the figure had reduced to eight. By Tuesday afternoon, just three people were due to be on board; however, minutes before take-off, the flight was cancelled after a late intervention from the European Court of Human Rights sparked new challenges in UK courts. The Government said on Wednesday that officials were working to prepare the next flight.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, agreed with the Lords Spiritual. She said on Tuesday: “This policy is a shameful departure from the UK’s proud history of treating those who seek asylum with compassion.  It is a policy that runs against the underlying principle of the 1951 convention that wealthy countries should welcome their share of asylum seekers and instead seeks to make it someone else’s problem. And it is a policy that means vulnerable and traumatised people who have fled unspeakable situations, face being flown 4000 miles away without their consent.”

Dr Francis-Dehqani did not accept the argument that there were no alternative ways to stop the dangerous channel crossings in small boats. She said: “The Government could provide safe and legal routes for people to come here before their cases are heard. I also don’t accept the suggestion that this will work as a deterrent. Policies such as the Hostile Environment Policy have failed to work as a deterrent in the past. Even since this policy was announced, thousands of people have arrived by boat (including 500 in one day last month).”

Before the appeal decision on Monday afternoon, 17 refugee and children’s charities, led by the Children’s Society, wrote to the Home Secretary deploring the plan. “We are gravely concerned that unaccompanied children — who have been incorrectly age-assessed to be adults — will be removed to Rwanda under this policy, with hugely damaging repercussions on their safety and well-being.”

The charities report: “Members of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium — a coalition of over 60 organisations working with refugee children — regularly see the Home Office treating children as young as 14 as adults. These children are placed in immigration detention or alone in adult accommodation.”

Young people were given little support to challenge initial age assessments. “Under the Government’s Rwanda policy, those children incorrectly assessed to be adults now face the potentially extreme consequences of being removed to a country 4000 miles away with no further means of redress.”

Although the Immigration Minister had said that any age dispute “must be concluded, of course, before someone is relocated to Rwanda”, the charities write, “however we are already seeing cases of children who have been detained as adults being issued with ‘notices of intent’ to remove them.”

Azmina Siddique, who is the policy and impact manager for the Children’s Society, said on Monday: “We are really worried that children might be wrongly age assessed and sent to Rwanda. . . There are no explicit protections for vulnerable claimants like children on the face of the Act, and changes to age assessments have been brought in which are not ethical or accurate. Child refugees and asylum seekers need support and protection, not the threat of uncertainty and being sent thousands of miles to Rwanda.”

Other signatories of the letter include the Refugee Council, Barnardo’s, Safe Passage International, and Care4Calais. The latter was among the groups working with law firms to appeal against the High Court’s decision in individual cases.

Earlier this month, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) expressed its concern about the deal between the UK and Rwanda, saying that it was “inconsistent with Christian faith principles, and risks undermining the foundations of the post-World War II international refugee protection system, in particular, the right to asylum”.

The committee agreed with recent comments made by the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, that the “UNHCR remains firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards and standards,” and that shifting responsibility was “contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention”.

The WCC called on the Government to reconsider the policy, “in light of the additional threat it poses to people already fleeing from conflict and oppression”.

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