The debate about Britain’s asylum system has been cloaked in layers of misunderstanding, misinformation and even propaganda as the issue has become increasingly politicized.
At times, some of the confusion about the system has been amplified by lawmakers from the Conservative government, as they try to push through a controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.
So far, Britain has sent 140 million pounds — about $175.8 million — to the Rwandan government, but not a single person to Rwanda, because of a succession of legal challenges. Legislation designed to change that is being debated in Parliament again this week.
As the legislation, the safety of Rwanda bill, returns to Parliament this week, and as politicians haggle over what shape it will take, here’s a look at three common claims about the policy and how it might affect asylum in Britain.
Claim: If you’re worried about high levels of immigration to Britain, the Rwanda policy will address your concerns.
Reality: The asylum seekers this plan targets are a small fraction of arrivals.
Right-wing Conservatives who supported Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union view the Rwanda plan as part of fulfilling the Brexit promise to regain control of Britain’s borders.
And yet asylum seekers make up around 6 percent of overall migration to Britain. In 2022, total immigration rose to record levels, with over a million people coming to Britain to work and study. The majority are from outside Europe, with the top three sources of legal migrants that year being India, Nigeria and China. Provisional figures show those numbers remained high in 2023.
The government does not tend to focus on the rise in overall migration, which does not fit neatly with its rhetoric around cutting arrivals. And the awkward truth is that Britain increasingly relies on immigrants to keep its economy — and its public services — running.
In the year ending September 2023, there were 75,340 asylum applications in the United Kingdom, according to the most recent figures available from the government. While the number of asylum applications has risen in recent years, it is still below its peak in 2002, when conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia helped drive the figure to 84,132. Experts in migration say sharp increases in asylum applications tend to reflect wars or natural disasters, with falls when those issues are resolved.
Claim: The plan will ‘stop the boats’ by deterring asylum seekers from heading for Britain.
Reality: Many experts say that there’s little evidence for a deterrent effect.
The Rwanda plan was first introduced by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, as a response to migrants crossing the English Channel to Britain in small boats.
Since then, a succession of Conservative leaders have pursued the policy, and “stop the boats” has become a rallying cry. But the concept has been challenged from the start, both on principle and on whether it would work.
The government’s plan would mean anyone arriving by small boat or any another “irregular means” would be inadmissible for asylum in Britain. Instead, they would be detained and then sent to Rwanda. Their asylum cases would be heard there, and if successful, they would be resettled there.
The government has argued that this will “deter dangerous and illegal journeys,” and “disrupt the business model of people smugglers.”
The policy rests on the idea that people considering claiming asylum in Britain will decide not to attempt the journey if they believe it will end with a one-way flight to Rwanda.
But there is little evidence, as yet, that this is the case. Experts note that desperate people fleeing war or persecution already take huge risks in the hope of finding safety. Just days ago, five people died in icy waters off the French coast while attempting to board a vessel destined for English shores.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did oversee a reduction in the number of boat arrivals in Britain in the year leading into 2023, with 16 percent fewer people arriving than in the previous 12 months. Government data indicated that the drop was largely because of a reduction in Albanians arriving in that period, after Mr. Sunak struck a deal with the Albanian government.
Claim: The new law will see off legal challenges to the plan.
Reality: Many disagree, including the U.N. and international legal experts.
The government’s current legislation, the safety of Rwanda bill, would enshrine in law the government’s assertion that the African nation is a safe place to send asylum seekers. The bill was crafted as a direct response to a November ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court that the policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful.
In that case, the judges said there were real concerns that asylum seekers who had claims heard in Rwanda could face return to their countries of origin, which could leave refugees at risk of violence or ill-treatment. Implementing the policy, the court said, would therefore violate British and international law.
James Cleverly, Britain’s home secretary, told Parliament in late December that the new legislation “puts beyond legal doubt the safety of Rwanda” and “provides the basis to end the merry-go-round of legal challenges.”
But this is by no means settled. Sarah Gogan, an immigration lawyer and partner at Harbottle and Lewis, a British law firm, said that simply passing the law would not automatically make it legal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
“While the government is preventing individuals from trying to undertake any challenges under domestic law, Parliament cannot legislate away U.K. obligations under international law,” she said, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the U.N. Refugee Convention of 1951, to both of which Britain was a key signatory after World War II.
A last-minute interim decision by the European Court of Human Rights halted a flight scheduled to take asylum seekers to Rwanda from Britain in June 2022.
The United Nations refugee agency has opposed the plan from the start and this week issued a new analysis arguing that despite the latest legislation, it remained “incompatible” with international protections for refugees.
There are still obstacles for the new legislation within Parliament, too: If it passes the House of Commons, it may face challenges in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber.