United Kingdom: European Court of Human Rights Halts Relocation of Asylum-Seekers Under UK-Rwanda Agreement

On June 14, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, which is responsible for enforcing the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights, issued an injunction blocking the first flight of asylum seekers being relocated to Rwanda in accordance with an 11th-hour ruling on the recent memorandum of understanding between the United Kingdom (U.K.) and Rwanda (U.K.-Rwanda Agreement). The injunction blocked the flight to Rwanda minutes before the scheduled take-off.

The U.K.-Rwanda agreement provides an “asylum partnership arrangement” between the two countries and enables the British government to relocate to Rwanda individuals who have illegally entered or arrived in the U.K. Individuals sent to Rwanda under the agreement will have their claims for asylum considered in Rwanda under its domestic asylum system, with the U.K. government providing all necessary data about the refugees, most notably their personal information, to Rwandan authorities for processing purposes. The U.K. government has stated that this gives effect to the claimant’s rights under international law. Those whose claims for asylum are granted will be settled in Rwanda. It has been reported that the U.K. will pay up to 120 million pounds (about US$157 million) to the Rwandan government in support of the relocation of refugees to Rwanda.

The ECtHR ruled that migrants cannot be relocated until at least three weeks after a judicial review of the U.K.-Rwandan Agreement is completed. This judicial review has been scheduled for July 19, 2022, by the U.K. High Court. The ruling from the ECtHR required courts in the U.K., which had previously denied similar injunctions on flights to Rwanda, to allow these injunctions, effectively stopping all flights scheduled to Rwanda under the agreement.

Impact of the U.K.-Rwanda Agreement

Officials from the United Nations (U.N.) have raised concerns over the potential impact of the U.K.-Rwanda Agreement, cautioning that the plan violates the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention). Laura Dubinsky, a lawyer representing the U.N. refugee agency, has noted that asylum-seekers relocated under the agreement were at risk of “serious, irreparable harm” due to concerns about Rwanda’s capacity to handle arrivals.

The U.K.-Rwanda Agreement departs from the current interpretation of article 33 of the Refugee Convention, to which the U.K. is a signatory. Most notably, it would mark a more conservative interpretation of the principle of non-refoulement, which provides that “[n]o Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Exceptions to article 33 currently exist only when there are reasonable grounds to believe that a refugee would constitute a danger to that country’s community. While previous case law has considered this balance before, the ECtHR and the U.K. Supreme Court have both previously pronounced definitive judgment that the principle of non-refoulement cannot be abridged due to security concerns.

Future of the U.K.-Rwanda Agreement

The U.K. government has stated that it remains “committed to the policy” and that it will likely challenge the ECHR ruling. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has even suggested considering pulling Britain out of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Other countries, such as Denmark, are also considering similar agreements. However, NGOs such as the Danish Refugee Council have warned that there is a significant risk that some countries will opt out of hosting refugees themselves in favor of outsourcing asylum procedure proposals to other countries.

Prepared by Hillary Woo, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Clare Feikert-Ahalt, Senior Foreign Law Specialist

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