The UK government has prompted fury after briefing details of a plan to fly asylum seekers nearly 5,000 miles to Rwanda for processing amid pressure to tackle small boat crossings of the Channel.
Boris Johnson is set to argue on Thursday that action is needed to combat the “vile people smugglers” turning the ocean into a “watery graveyard”.
But charities warned the “cruel and nasty decision” to “offshore” some asylum seekers more than 6,000 miles away will fail to address the issue, “lead to more human suffering and chaos” while potentially costing millions. Labour hit out at the “unworkable, unethical” plan.
After a speech from the prime minister, home secretary Priti Patel was expected to set out further details of a “migration and economic development partnership” with Rwanda, during a visit to the East African nation.
Under pressure after being fined for breaching coronavirus laws, Johnson will say that the number of people making the perilous crossing of the Channel could reach 1,000 a day within weeks, after around 600 arrived on Wednesday.
“I accept that these people – whether 600 or one thousand – are in search of a better life; the opportunities that the United Kingdom provides and the hope of a fresh start,” he is expected to say.
“But it is these hopes – these dreams – that have been exploited. These vile people smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children drowning in unseaworthy boats and suffocating in refrigerated lorries.”
Johnson will argue the nation voted to “control” immigration in the Brexit referendum rather than control borders, and say that “our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not”.
“So just as Brexit allowed us to take back control of legal immigration by replacing free movement with our points-based system, we are also taking back control of illegal immigration, with a long-term plan for asylum in this country,” he is expected to say.
“It is a plan that will ensure the UK has a world-leading asylum offer, providing generous protection to those directly fleeing the worst of humanity, by settling thousands of people every year through safe and legal routes.”
Many details of the expected announcement, such as whether it would apply just to those who arrived by what the government calls illegal means, remained unclear.
Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, described the proposal as “a desperate and shameful . . . attempt to distract from his own law breaking”, referring to the partygate scandal.
“It is an unworkable, unethical and extortionate policy that would cost the UK taxpayer billions of pounds during a cost of living crisis and would make it harder not easier to get fast and fair asylum decisions,” she added.
British Red Cross executive director Zoe Abrams said the humanitarian network was “profoundly concerned” about the plans to “send traumatised people halfway round the world to Rwanda”.
“The financial and human cost will be considerable; evidence from where offshoring has been implemented elsewhere shows it leads to profound human suffering, plus the bill that taxpayers will be asked to foot is likely to be huge,” she added.
“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel either. People come here for reasons we can all understand, like wanting to be reunited with loved ones, or because they speak the language. Making it harsher may do little to stop them risking their lives.”
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, urged the government to “immediately rethink its plans”.
“We are appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision to send those seeking sanctuary in our country to Rwanda,” he said.
“Every day we are hearing the stories of desperate Ukrainian families fleeing war. This is the brutal reality faced by refugees escaping conflicts all over the world, who this government now wants to treat as no more than human cargo to be shipped elsewhere.
“Offshoring the UK’s asylum system will do absolutely nothing to address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK.
“It will do little to deter them from coming to this country, but only lead to more human suffering and chaos – at a huge expense of an estimated £1.4 billion a year.”
But the Home Office questioned the figure, with a source saying it was “ludicrous to suggest costs would be more than the current system”.
The expected deal with Rwanda comes after other locations touted – including Ascension Island, Albania and Gibraltar – were rejected, at times angrily by the nations suggested.
Peers could mount fresh resistance to the measure, having already inflicted a series of defeats to the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill.
The legislation is currently in a tussle between the Commons and the Lords after peers defeated ministers, including with a demand that offshore asylum claims should be subject to approval by both Houses of Parliament.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said the “shockingly ill-conceived idea will go far further in inflicting suffering while wasting huge amounts of public money”.
Sonya Sceats, the chief executive of the Freedom from Torture charity, said plans to “imprison refugees in prison camps in Rwanda is deeply disturbing and should horrify anybody with a conscience”.
“It is even more dismaying that the UK government has agreed this deal with a state known to practise torture, as we know from the many Rwandan torture survivors we have treated over the years,” she said.
Sceats suggested Johnson was hoping the “cynical announcement will distract from his own lawbreaking and shore up his party’s plummeting support in the upcoming local elections”.
Ministers have been under pressure to accept more refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the visa system criticised for being too bureaucratic.