GENEVA (AP) — Britain and Rwanda on Thursday faced down two United Nations agencies that have sharply criticized their controversial plan in which Britain expects to send some asylum-seekers from the U.K. to the African country.
In an interview with The Associated Press before meeting top officials from the U.N. human rights and refugee agencies, Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta acknowledged it was “fine that they be concerned,” adding that the discussion was aimed “to bring them on board” to work with the two countries.
The U.N. refugee agency chief, in remarks on Twitter, sounded unconvinced.
Under the plan unveiled last month, British officials said they will send to migrants arriving in the U.K. illegally – often as stowaways or in small boats crossing the English Channel – to Rwanda. There the migrants’ asylum claims will be processed, and if successful, the migrants will stay there.
U.N. officials and other critics — particularly in the two countries — raised human rights concerns and warned such a move goes against the international Refugee Convention.
British Home Secretary Priti Patel said Britain had seen over 20,000 people enter illegally over the last year, and insisted that her Conservative government — along with Rwanda — was “finding new innovative solutions to global problems” amid a crisis of illegal immigration. She insisted the plan was about saving lives of people taken by smugglers on often-treacherous journeys to try to reach Britain.
“I’m afraid other organizations and other countries, you know, are not coming up with alternatives — and the status quo is simply not acceptable anymore,” she said.
The meetings come a day after Patel’s office, hosting Biruta in London, announced that a “first tranche of illegal migrants with no right to be in the UK have now been notified” of the British government’s intention to relocate them to Rwanda.
Patel declined to specify how many people would be in that first group, how they arrived in Britain, or how many people overall might be sent to Rwanda under the plan, saying “we don’t share our operational details.”
She decried “a lot of deliberate misinformation” about the people who would be sent to Rwanda. She also touted her country’s “outstanding record of resettling people and hosting migrants and refugees” – noting 15,000 people were brought from Afghanistan to Britain and the issuance of 100,000 visas to Ukrainians.
Patel sought to distinguish between legal routes to entry, which Britain welcomes, and the approaches by some migrants who try to enter illegally.
The ministers met with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who last month – the same day when Britain’s parliament passed a bill on asylum and nationality – regretted approval of the U.K. government’s proposal for a new approach to asylum that “undermines established international refugee protection law and practices.”
When the program – the Migration and Economic Development Partnership – was announced in mid-April, Grandi’s assistant high commissioner for refugees, Gillian Triggs, insisted that people fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserved empathy, adding: “They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.”
After Thursday’s meeting, Grandi tweeted that he had reiterated his concerns about the deal, adding: “Shifting asylum responsibilities is not the solution.” He said his agency, UNHCR, “will continue proposing concrete solutions that respect international law.”
The ministers also met with Nada al-Nashif, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for Human Rights. Her office didn’t comment after Thursday’s meeting.
Last month, the U.N. human rights office tweeted its support for UNHCR’s position, saying the plan raises human rights concerns — notably about forcible returns, family separation, “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” and the prospect that cases might not be assessed on an individual basis.
A statement from the British Home Office after the meetings in Geneva, which also involved visits with diplomats from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, said Rwanda was a “fundamentally safe and secure country.” It added that the partnership plan would process asylum claims in accordance with the Refugee Convention, as well as national and international human rights laws.
Rwanda’s Biruta said initial planning considered that some 30,000 people might be involved in the plan, but in any case Rwanda could take in thousands.
Rwandan authorities in recent years have given asylum to hundreds of people seeking shelter as a result of arrangements with Israel, the African Union, the U.N. and others. Many were from Eritrea and Ethiopia, including some who languished for months in detention centers in Libya.
Some people who went to Rwanda have insisted that the country — with a population of 13 million, and Africa’s most densely populated country, is not a suitable refuge. Rwanda already is home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries such as Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.