Asylum Seekers Already in U.K. Say Rwanda Law Creates New Anxiety


On a cold spring day last month, Mohsen, a 36-year-old from Iran, woke before dawn and was hurried by smugglers onto a rubber boat on the coast of France.

The water was calm and the sky clear, but he knew the risks of the journey he was about to make, he said. Since 2018, at least 72 people have drowned in the Channel while attempting crossings, according to the International Organization for Migration.

He fled Iran, he said, because police officers came to his home last year threatening to arrest him after he took part in anti-government protests.

Mohsen, who asked to be identified only by his first name over concerns that having his full name published could affect his asylum claim, said he was willing to risk drowning for the chance of a new life in Britain. And he boarded the boat even though he knew about the British government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to the central African country of Rwanda, which was first announced in 2022.

“What can I do? What other option did I have?” he said. “Honestly, I am worried, especially after Monday. Every day, the rules seem to change.”

On Monday, Britain’s Conservative government passed a contentious law intended to clear the way for deportation flights to Rwanda to begin in the summer despite an earlier ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court that deemed the country unsafe for refugees. For months, the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament, tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill, with a former Conservative chancellor saying that ignoring the country’s highest court set “an extremely dangerous precedent.”

Under the plan, some asylum seekers will have their claims heard in Rwanda, and, even if approved, they would be resettled there and not allowed to live in Britain. Anyone who arrived in Britain after Jan. 1, 2022, and traveled by dangerous means, like small boats or covertly in trucks, or came via a “safe third country,” could be sent to Rwanda, according to government guidance. The law and other recent government policies mean there are now very few ways to claim asylum in Britain, with some exceptions including for Ukrainians and people from Hong Kong.

Charities and rights groups that support asylum seekers say many have expressed concern about Rwanda’s troubled human rights record and that fears of being sent away had added to the anxiety of living in limbo for months or even years.

Habibullah, 28, arrived by boat last year after fleeing Afghanistan when the Taliban took control and, he said, killed his father and brother. He asked that only his first name be used because of security concerns.

“If I go to Afghanistan I will be dead,” he said, but added that the prospect of going to Rwanda felt almost as daunting. He said he had been seeing a doctor for depression since receiving a letter from the British government last June informing him that he could be deported.

He said his route from Afghanistan took him through Iran, Bulgaria, Austria, Switzerland and France, and he sometimes went without food. After all that hardship, he said, he couldn’t bear to be sent away.

“I came to the U.K. for the U.K.,” he said, sitting in the harshly lit cafeteria of a South London hotel where he and other asylum seekers are being housed.

One of the hotel’s residents said she had survived rape and torture in Botswana. Another had fled the Syrian civil war. They all said they feared ending up in Rwanda.

Marvin George Bamwite, 27, said he left his home in Uganda, which neighbors Rwanda and has draconian anti-gay laws, after his family found out that he was gay and condemned him.

“To other people, Rwanda might be safe, but not for everybody,” he said. “Not gay people. Rwanda is not safe for us.”

Rwanda has transformed since its devastating genocide of 1994. It has become prosperous, but the government has also been accused of repression and human rights abuses. While being gay is not illegal in Rwanda, it is often stigmatized, and Human Rights Watch has documented arbitrary detentions in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

Britain’s Supreme Court declared the Rwanda policy unlawful in November. It found that there were substantial grounds for believing asylum seekers sent there would face a real risk of ill-treatment as a result of “refoulement” — meaning that refugees could be returned to their countries of origin and face potential violence or ill treatment, in violation of both British and international law.

The new law aims to override the court’s ruling by declaring Rwanda safe, and instructing judges and immigration officials to treat it as such, a maneuver that lawyers in the House of Lords called a “legal fiction.” On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government would immediately begin detaining asylum seekers, with the first deportation flights scheduled for late June or early July. Legal challenges are expected, however, and they could prevent the flights from taking off.

The government’s policy rests on the theory that asylum seekers would reconsider traveling to Britain if they believed they would end up in Rwanda. But that remains to be seen. At least in the months since Mr. Sunak said he would continue to push for the plan, boat arrivals continued.

Hours after the policy was passed, five people, including a child, who had been aboard an overcrowded rubber boat, died during an attempt to cross from France. Mr. Sunak said the deaths underscored the need for the Rwanda plan.

“This is what tragically happens when they push people out to sea,” he said, referring to human smugglers as he spoke to journalists on Tuesday. “That’s why, for matter of compassion more than anything else, we must actually break this business model and end this unfairness of people coming to our country illegally.”

While several asylum seekers who spoke to The New York Times said they would still have tried to come despite the Rwanda policy, Mr. Bamwite said he thought it might work as a deterrent for at least some would-be African asylum seekers.

“Nobody would come to U.K. to be taken back to Africa,” he said.

According to the most recent British government data, as of December 2023, about 95,252 asylum cases were waiting for an initial decision.

Some, like Mohammed Al Muhandes, 53, have lingered in hotels, barred from working and reliant on government support.

Mr. Muhandes, who fled Yemen after threats against his life amid the country’s civil war, requested asylum in Britain in July 2023 and has spent months in a hotel in Leeds in the north of England. “This tunnel is dark, and there is no light at the end,” he said. “You are just waiting for someone to come and have the light shine in.”

Because of a lack of clarity about whom the Rwanda plan may apply to, a climate of fear has permeated the hotels, shared houses and other places where many asylum seekers await answers on their cases.

“It feels very terrible, honestly,” said Reza Khademi, 24, who is living in Bradford, in northern England. Mr. Khademi arrived in August 2023 from Iran after police officers there came to his door threatening to arrest him over his participation in anti-government protests and his critical posts on social media.

“I didn’t want to leave. I had a job, a family, a house, a car,” Mr. Khademi said. “Here, I’ve started from zero.”

He said his mother and father called him crying when they heard about the latest legislation. Because of how he traveled — by plane and without stopping in a “safe” third country — the law may not apply to him. When asked by The Times if the rule would apply to him, the Home Office said it would not comment on individual cases.

Still, the uncertainty has caused stress, Mr. Khademi said, noting that gray streaks have appeared suddenly in his dark brown hair.

“Every day, you read about these bad things, about Rwanda, how they want to send us there, and I feel very nervous,” he said. “You don’t know what could happen to you.”



Source link

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top