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New Markets Opening Up to the “Refugees” Commodity

In Europe, no voice rises up above that of empathy and welcome for Ukrainian refugees. The continent opened its doors wide for Ukrainians and provided urgent funding in the first weeks of the crisis, with the number of refugees leaving Ukraine exceeding 4 million people. 

For European countries that did not experience waves of displacement and asylum prior to the Ukraine crisis, it went so peacefully but for countries that formerly received Arab and African refugees, unexpected problems arose, particularly with the visible discrimination between mechanisms and the reception of Ukrainians and the treatment of former refugees. Positions and scenarios of dealing with refugees diverged significantly in different countries, with each country having its own case depending on its particular dynamics, timidly observing the legal and international standards pertaining to the rights and refugee status in the hosting country. On many issues, Britain always has leverage over European Union countries when it comes to policies and engagement with these issues and it, indeed, makes sure to have a head start in this respect. 

While the world was preoccupied with the developments of the Russo-Ukrainian war, Britain introduced a provocative expedient on the refugee issue. In mid-April, a surprise announcement was made of a pact signed between Britain and Rwanda to relocate illegal immigrants (which the agreement identifies them as single men seeking settling in Britain) to facilities designated for refugees in Rwanda until their asylum applications are decided upon. But the pact goes far than that. Leaked particulars of the agreement indicate that both Britain and Rwanda should encourage the refugees relocated to stay in Rwanda for another five years after the approval of their papers and the legalization of their status as immigrants.

The pact was signed by British Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta during Patel’s visit to Kigali. Under the agreement, Britain initially paid Rwanda $156 million for a five-year pilot scheme and pledged to provide additional funding to be allocated to every immigrant Rwanda resettles. Despite attempts to wrap this unprecedented agreement up in secrecy, it provoked the anger and resentment of all organizations supporting refugees worldwide and, naturally, it gave rise to logical comparison between it and other resolutions approved by the same ministry in March, allowing for hosting Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war for an initial period of 12 months.    

Britain justifies this shocking step by the increasing number of immigrants who crossed the English Channel from France in small boats this year, amounting to 4,500 people (i.e. four times the number of trans-migrants during the same last year) and the death of dozens of them off the northern French coast due to the overcrowded boats and their lack of safety standards. 

The British interior was also frowned upon by the pact, seeing it not straying too far from the old practices of shipping toxic waste from developed countries to landfills in the developing countries while claiming to pay appropriate development fees for these countries for this service. 

Today, through this pact, the British government pledges to prevent asylum-seekers from choosing Britain as a destination. On the other side, there emerged a group of people who promote the idea that Rwanda is in need of this developmental financial support, with it hosting nearly 130,000 refugees on its soil and having a robust system for receiving refugees in camps and transit centers. If the UK-Rwanda scheme goes well, Rwanda’s international classification as an effective partner in governance of migration and asylum management will rise. 

Months after the signing of the agreement and putting it in place, it became clear that the first immigrant group to be deported will be a group of Syrians. Since its announcement, the scheme sparked ongoing legal and human rights uproar. The British Parliament knew that the first group of asylum-seekers to be relocated to Rwanda are single Syrians (15 people) who arrived in Britain without their families. 

According to what the Parliament has been notified of, after the transfer of those asylum-seekers to Rwanda, their asylum applications will be decided upon and they can obtain the right to settle in Rwanda, with Britain affording the necessary funding to pull this off. The news left the Syrians in deep frustration and they approached several human rights organizations concerned with refugee issues. They maintain that the British government is pushing them to implement its plan with Rwanda and that about 100 people, not 15 as was rumored, will be deported.

The organizations that addressed that issue announced that they would resort to the Supreme Court, after the British government closed all dialogue doors. Yet the whole thing seems to go beyond such limited judicial steps. As the issue picked up momentum in Britain, the European Union through the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) entered into discussions with the Niger government to establish border areas on its territory. With support from the International Organization for Migration, the EU’s plan aims at keeping undocumented migrants in these border areas until their cases are processed, which leaves the world facing a three-dimensional human violation that stands out in stark contrast to the black markets that are being developed silently and assiduously.

This article was originally published in Al-Ahram newspaper on 11 June 2022.

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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