Rwanda was “ruled out” of consideration for an asylum deal by the Foreign Office, but put back on the list of potential countries after “particular interest” was shown by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel.
The first day of a High Court challenge over the agreement, which would see the UK forcibly send asylum seekers to Kigali, heard new evidence on the repeated internal warnings against the plans.
Documents filed by lawyers representing several people targeted for removal, along with the PCS union, Detention Action and Care4Calais, showed that consideration of Rwanda for a “migration partnership” had started by September 2020.
Dominic Raab, then the foreign secretary, approved criteria that stated countries would be excluded if “individuals faced a real risk of violations of international human rights law”.
Rwanda made a longlist of 47 countries, but following further investigation by civil servants, it did not make a list of seven nations recommended as potential partners in February 2021.
Documents disclosed to the claimants by the government show that it appeared instead on a list of “14 countries presenting substantial issues in relation to asylum systems and human rights and/or political negotiability”.
A formal submission to Mr Raab said: “We’ve looked very carefully at Rwanda, which has previously agreed migration partnerships… but presents significant human rights concerns.”
It said Rwanda was “accused of recruiting refugees to conduct operations in neighbouring countries”, had a “heavy-handed security system” and that a previous deal with Israel had been suspended.
In March 2021, Downing Street’s policy unit told the Foreign Office it wanted information on countries outside the seven proposed countries, but Rwanda was still not listed.
A submission to the former foreign secretary said: “No 10 have asked us to look again at the viability of [redacted] Rwanda [redacted]. We had previously ruled all these countries out on political and/or legal grounds. We see little reason to change that.”
A Foreign Office document from May 2021 said Downing Street had “continued to show interest” in Rwanda, but officials “continued to advise No 10 against engagement”.
An internal assessment the following month said “politically driven human rights violations (torture, killings, kidnap) are common” and that there were “concerns over human rights violations for political opposition”.
But in June last year, the Foreign Office was told that the prime minister was “frustrated at the rate of progress” on an asylum processing deal with a foreign country, and shared a “particular interest in Rwanda” with Ms Patel and the immigration minister.
Mr Raab then authorised diplomatic staff in Rwanda to make contact with the country’s government on a potential deal, which was signed in April despite further internal government warnings over its treatment of refugees.
While the High Court case got underway on Monday, Ms Patel retweeted a Home Office video showing her praising Rwanda as "an incredible country that has a very, very progressive and developed approach in terms of not just how they treat people but how they are governed".
Appearing in the footage, the outgoing home secretary said the Rwanda deal was “essential” and would “set new international standards”.
The claimant’s legal submissions said that the home secretary, and UK government more generally, were “aware of and appear to have had serious concerns over Rwanda’s present and historic human rights record”, and that “concerns were articulated repeatedly by public officials”.
Addressing the High Court on Monday, Raza Husain QC said Rwanda was a “one-party authoritarian state with extreme levels of surveillance that does not tolerate political opposition”.
“It imprisons, tortures and murders those it considers to be its opponents,” the barrister added.
“Those who protest or dissent from government directives, including refugees, are faced with police violence and repression.”
Incidents cited include a 2018 protest where several refugees were shot dead by Rwandan police, while other demonstrators were charged with crimes including “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan state”.
Rwanda is also accused of breaking the Refugee Convention through the forcible return of asylum seekers to countries where they face persecution and allowing “disappearances” of migrants transferred by Israel.
“None of this is the will of parliament,” Mr Husain told the High Court. “It is a matter of executive policy alone and falls to be rigorously scrutinised on that basis.”
In a formal assessment published in May, the British government declared Rwanda a “safe third country” for the purpose of asylum processing, but the claimants are contesting the accuracy of the document.
The High Court has heard that a draft version was shared with Rwandan officials before publication and that recommendations and edits by internal government reviewers were ignored.
An official from the Home Office’s country policy information team wrote that he had “tried to improve the tone without resorting to fiction” and wanted to restructure the document to “make it sound more positive”.
But a reviewer from the Foreign Office recommended numerous changes, saying that the assessment must not be a “whitewash” and should not attribute “pretty clear facts” on Rwanda’s human rights record to “some NGOs”.
Written arguments on behalf of the home secretary said that asylum claims were considered individually and there was “no risk of harm to any of the individual claimants in Rwanda”.
Lawyers acting for the Home Office told the High Court that following a “dramatic increase” in small boat crossings over the English Channel, Ms Patel “considers that there is a strong public interest in deterring such illegal, dangerous and unnecessary journeys from safe third countries to the UK by asylum seekers”.
They added: “To achieve that aim, the UK looked to form a partnership with another third country to which asylum seekers, who have made such journeys to the UK, could safely be relocated.
“That third country had to be safe but without the same attractions to migrants as the UK appears to present. Several countries were considered but Rwanda was the first to be selected.”
The hearing, due to last for five days, continues.
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