UN criticism of UK Rwanda plan incomprehensible: ministerWed, 13 Dec 2023 17:30:25 GMT

As Britain pushes forward with controversial plans to send migrants to Rwanda, a UK government minister voiced “amazement” Wednesday at the criticism it has drawn from the United Nations.A day after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak won a knife-edge parliamentary vote on his latest version of the scheme, the UN refugee agency meanwhile reiterated its warning that it runs counter to international law.”I wish to express most extraordinary amazement that the UNHCR… strongly opposes Britain’s plan for sending people to Rwanda, on the grounds that Rwanda is not a safe country,” International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell told AFP.The UNHCR has from the start been harshly critical of the UK-Rwanda deportation plan, first announced by Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson last year.The government presented it as a way of dealing with increasing numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from France in small boats.Almost 30,000 irregular migrants have crossed the Channel from northern France in rudimentary vessels this year.Mitchell insisted that the Rwanda plan was needed to “break” the business model of people smugglers bringing migrants across the Channel.”Vulnerable people — and many of them have died — are smuggled by the modern-day equivalent of a slave trader across what is the biggest, busiest shipping lane in the world, to enter Britain illegally,” he said.”No government can allow that sort of thing to happen,” said the minister, speaking to AFP by phone on the sidelines of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.- ‘Genuinely stumped’ -But the UNHCR has voiced “deep concern about the ‘externalisation’ of asylum obligations and the serious risks it poses for refugees”.The scheme has long been stuck in the courts since the first deportees were pulled off a flight out of the UK at the last minute in June 2022 after an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.Then in November, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was illegal under international law, since Rwanda was not a safe country.The government came back with its new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill last week, seeking to declare Rwanda safe and circumvent that ruling.The emergency legislation, which passed its first hurdle Tuesday, would compel judges to treat Rwanda as safe. It would give UK ministers powers to disregard sections of human rights law.”We have not changed our position,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi told reporters Wednesday when asked about the latest development.He said his agency still needed to study the latest version of bill, but stressed its longstanding view that “to transfer a state’s responsibilities in terms of determining if a person is a refugee or not to another country… renouncing that state’s responsibility, is clearly against the 1951 refugee convention”. “That opinion remains.”Mitchell said he was “amazed, astonished, genuinely stumped”, that the UNHCR would criticise the plan, pointing out that the agency itself has relocated vulnerable migrants from war-torn Libya to Rwanda.- ‘Cannot compare’ -“I can’t understand it, that the UNHCR would complain that Britain would send people to an unsafe country, when that is clearly not what they think, or they wouldn’t be sending all these people to Rwanda,” he said.”It defies explanation.”When asked about Mitchell’s criticism, Grandi said it was “completely misplaced”.UNHCR does have a programme called the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM), aimed at temporarily evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees in Libya to Rwanda.”What we do in Libya is to evacuate very vulnerable cases of refugees… that we believe are in need of international protection to a safer place, where they can then be screened and sent to third countries,” he explained.”You cannot compare.”Mitchell meanwhile hinted that Britain’s backing of the UNHCR, which is facing a dire funding crunch, might be in question.He said Britain would always fund the “UNHCR for the vital work they do, where we think they’re getting value for money — and where we think they’re acting in support of values and interests which Britain supports”.