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Monday 20 June 2022

Syrians are targeted by the UK’s Rwanda deportation plan

Many Syrian refugees have found a welcome in the UK. But more recently, Syrians arriving in the UK have been amongst those asylum seekers put in army camps, and have even been locked up and threatened with deportation to Rwanda.

All of us, Syrian and non-Syrian, have an interest in stopping these offensive policies—they stir hate and racism against all asylum seekers and refugees, and threaten the cohesiveness of UK society.

Here we explain the latest developments in the UK Government’s Rwanda plan, and consider what Syrians and their friends can do to stop it.

What happened to stop the plane to Kigali on June 14th?

As we know, there are currently no legal routes to asylum in the UK, except for some people from Hong Kong, Ukraine and possibly Afghanistan. Because of our geography, everyone who crosses clandestinely into the UK can be deemed to have passed through another safe country. But because of Brexit, since December 2020 they cannot be returned to Europe. So, for a UK Government obsessed with its borders, that meant finding somewhere else to remove them to.

Israel started sending some of its asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2013—at first voluntarily, but in 2018 forcibly—after evidence that it led to more dangerous journeys instead of safety, compulsory transfers were discontinued after a few months.

Despite this dismal outcome, the UK chose to follow Israel’s example.

The first hundred men, randomly selected it seems, were given letters by the Home Office in mid May, indicating the ‘inadmissibility’ of their asylum claim (because they had arrived clandestinely) and their consequent removal to Rwanda. Anyone who arrives without permission from 9th May is liable to put on this list—initially men over the age of eighteen, but eventually everybody. And if they are granted asylum by Rwanda, they are expected to settle there.

How does this affect the Syrian community, and its supporters? Some of the early Syrian refugees from 2011 onwards were lucky enough to obtain visas (usually for study) and could claim asylum safely while in the UK. Then there was the Syrian Resettlement Scheme, which at first offered to take 500, but after the huge Refugees Welcome march in 2015, the UK Government promised to welcome 20,000 vulnerable Syrians from refugee camps in surrounding countries. But that was wound up in 2021, ostensibly on account of the covid pandemic. By then, over 19,000 Syrians had been accepted in the UK. Nothing has since replaced it.

Since then, Syrian asylum seekers have had no option but to take the dangerous journeys so deplored by the Government, and on arrival in the UK have faced an increasingly hostile environment. From September 2020 onwards, Syrians were among the hundreds sent to military camps at Pennally and Napier—indeed they were among the founders of CROP (Camp Residents of Pennally) whose campaigning led to the closure of that camp, and afterwards to similar attempts to organise the residents of Napier. (The struggle to close Napier is still ongoing).

Some of the original CROP members have founded a new organisation, Life Seekers Aid. Though it has a Syrian co-founder, Life Seekers Aid has few links with the more established Syrian community, but they are busy helping new arrivals, Syrian and non-Syrian, who are struggling in an ever-more hostile UK asylum system. Of the one hundred recent arrivals who received letters of removal to Rwanda, there were more than twenty Syrians, some of whom went on hunger strike in detention to protest their removal. So, Syrian asylum seekers have been at the heart of resistance to the most inhumane polices of this Government, and deserve our support.

Congratulations also to Action for Sama! With the Syria Campaign, they organised an email drop to MPs against the forced removals to Rwanda. Please add your voice.

Internationally, the Government’s abusive policy has drawn attention from Syrian human rights organisations and media. The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre wrote on why the UK’s controversial Rwanda scheme undermines international law. And Syria Direct has written ten things to know about the UK’s Rwanda deal, and has reported on the agony of two detained Syrian asylum seekers facing deportation.


There was huge relief last Tuesday evening at the last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which forbade the removal of one asylum seeker in the UK on the flight to Rwanda. This led to the other six remaining on the flight applying successfully for court injunctions removing them, on the same basis. So the flight, now empty, was called off!

Despite its bluster, it now seems impossible for the UK government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, according to its Memorandum of Understanding of April 2022, while its legality is being tested in the UK courts.

This could take many months—the first stage is due by end July—nevertheless the injunction forbidding removal is merely a respite, a temporary relief. And judging by the words of the UK judges to date, the prospects of a final favourable decision are not good.

Why should this be, in light of the formidable coalition of forces aligned against it?

The campaigners and charities which issued the judicial review were a representative sample of the 160 plus organisations which condemned the policy as ‘shamefully cruel’ in mid April.

One of the parties to the legal challenge is the trade union representing Home Office workers who would have to implement the policy.

The UNHCR, which the judges accepted as the primary arbitrer with responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, wrote a detailed analysis of the Government’s Rwanda policy in early June, which condemned it as seeking’ to shift responsibility’ and lacking in ‘necessary safeguards’ and as ‘incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention’.

Some of the asylum seekers threatened with removal to Rwanda went on hunger strike, and others self harmed or attempted suicide.

Apart from those directly involved in the legal challenge, many others have expressed strong opposition, including:
The opposition parties in Parliament, Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and others, also oppose the Rwanda plan. But public opinion polls still indicate support from the base of the Conservative party.

Why is this relevant to a court challenge, where the law and legal precedent is supposed to trump public opinion? Because of the weight that the UK judges gave to the ‘public interest’, over the risk to asylum seekers, in considering whether to order a temporary ban on flights. Granted they considered only an interim measure, while the legality of the policy as a whole was still undecided by the courts. So the so called ‘balance of convenience’ in such cases might give more weight to untested Government assurances, than in the final judgment.

Nevertheless the High Court Judge placed great weight on the ‘legitimate public interest’ in ‘deterring asylum seekers from dangerous journeys’—the stated aim of the British Government; and despite the powerful UNHCR arguments to the contrary, found that the risk to asylum seekers in Rwanda was ‘very small’, at least in the interim period before the full case was decided.

Any balancing act between competing interests is obviously a discretionary judgment. This one depended on not examining the UNHCR report in any depth—the judge’s excuse being that he did not have time to consider it closely—and on ignoring the lack of evidence that the policy was or would be an effective deterrent to ‘dangerous journeys’.

But the judges at the Court of Appeal agreed, in refusing to find that the first instance judge’s opinion was flawed, despite the UNHCR evidence. As did the Supreme Court, in agreeing with the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court contented itself with assurances from the Home Office that should the final case go against the Government, the asylum seekers would then be returned to the UK from Rwanda.

The ECHR, more removed from British public opinion, took the UNHCR evidence more seriously. It decided to indicate to the Government of the UK, under Rule 39, that the applicant should not be removed until the expiry of a period of three weeks following the delivery of the final domestic decision in the ongoing judicial review proceedings.

“The Court had regard to the concerns identified in the material before it, in particular by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that asylum-seekers transferred from the United Kingdom to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status as well as the finding by the High Court that the question whether the decision to treat Rwanda as a safe third country was irrational or based on insufficient enquiry gave rise to “serious triable issues”. In light of the resulting 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 United Kingdom 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.”

(ECHR Press Release, 14 June 2022)

What next?

The Government will not give up this policy easily—it is the core of their new Nationality and Borders Act which outsources its responsibility for asylum, under the Refugee Convention. To save the policy, the Government is now threatening to join Russia, Europe’s outlaw, outside the European Convention on Human Rights.

But the UK judges could defeat it; we need to strengthen the judges’ hand and rally their courage, by persuading them that the damage done to asylum seekers is greater than the damage done to the Government’s prestige by the undermining of its post Brexit flagship policy. We know that the lawyers, who have already proven their dedication, will do an excellent job in preparing the case. But this will be a decision based on moral values, as much as on legal principle.

With the Bishops and the Prince of Wales already publicly opposed to the Rwanda plan, we might ask what more could we do to convince the judges that public opinion is against it? But the smaller and more radical organisations, for example the Stop Deportations, No Borders movement, had a significant effect by striking at the right moment, delaying the flight sufficiently to give the lawyers and judges time for their last minute interventions—the last person was ordered off the plane only 20 minutes before take off, after an hour’s delay to the schedule.

A cacophony of voices—influential and less so—will add to the noise that the judges will hear, despite themselves, when they sit in judgment at the end of July and after. So we hope to add to that noise, on behalf of the many Syrians and others arriving on our shores, still desperately seeking safety, and still fighting for their human rights after arrival.