‘We’re seeing a race to the bottom’: How Australia inspired the UK’s controversial Rwanda asylum seeker deal

The "hard-won institution of asylum" is in jeopardy as wealthy countries compete to "make their destination unpalatable for asylum seekers", a refugee law expert has warned.

A composite image featuring a photo of Boris Johnson and a photo of asylum seekers standing behind a fence in the Oscar compound at the Manus Island detention centre.

The UK has vowed to go ahead with its controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, which has drawn comparison to Australia's offshore processing system. Source: AAP, SBS

Wealthy countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom are engaging in a “race to the bottom” on policies to deter asylum seekers in what could result in the end of the institution of asylum, a refugee and migration law expert has warned.

The UK’s deal to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda, which has drawn parallels to Australia’s offshore processing system, has been heavily criticised by human rights advocates.

The plan stalled this week when the first plane of asylum seekers due to be sent from the UK to Rwanda was grounded following intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.
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Daniel Ghezelbash, an internationally recognised scholar of refugee and migration law and deputy director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW, said wealthy countries are “competing to out-do deterrent measures introduced in other countries”.

“Sadly, what we're seeing around the world is states engaging in a race to the bottom, and then they see themselves in direct competition with other states in terms of trying to make their destination unpalatable for asylum seekers,” Dr Ghezelbash told SBS News.

“So they are increasingly introducing punitive measures, learning from one another, and these measures are becoming more and more harsh as time goes by.
“The endpoint of this race to the bottom will be the end of the hard-won institution of asylum and people in immediate danger will have nowhere to flee to.”

'Dismaying trend': From Operation Sovereign Borders to the UK-Rwanda deal

The UK vowed it would “not be deterred” from transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda despite the grounding of the first flight ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda next week, which both UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will attend.

Mr Johnson has said the deal is needed to stop “vile people smugglers” from “abusing the vulnerable and turning the [English] Channel into a watery graveyard".

During the 2022 election campaign, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison gestured to the UK deal as evidence of his government’s border policy success, saying that “other countries are taking their lead from Australia’s successful approach”.

Offshore processing was first introduced by the Howard Coalition government in 2001, before being wound back in 2007, then reintroduced by the Gillard Labor government in 2012, while the Abbott Coalition government instituted the hard-line Operation Sovereign Borders program in 2013.

“We established Operation Sovereign Borders and it has been one of the most successful border protection policies anywhere in the world,” Mr Morrison said.

The Department of Home Affairs web page on Operation Sovereign Borders says: "Australia's tough border protection policies are designed to protect Australia's borders, combat people smuggling and deter people from attempting dangerous boat voyages across the open ocean.

"No-one who travels illegally to Australia by boat will be allowed to remain in Australia."

Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also committed to maintaining Operation Sovereign Borders under his government, with Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong this week confirming the continuation of offshore processing on Nauru.

As of 31 Maythere were 112 people on Nauru under Australia's deal with the tiny island nation.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) Principal Solicitor Hannah Dickinson said the UK’s adoption of Australia’s model was “part of a dismaying trend”.

“It’s appalling that, despite a decade of cruelty that has led to severe harm, death, compensation payouts by the government, third-country deals, medical transfers, and international notoriety, the Australian model has influenced global policy,” Ms Dickinson told SBS News.

“The UK adoption is part of a dismaying trend of wealthy countries entering potentially exploitative and compromising agreements with Global South countries, offshoring their international obligations, in the absence of appropriate safeguards and conditions.”

Ms Dickinson said that offshore processing agreements “undermine the text and spirit of our international obligations and unnecessarily inflict real harm on people and families seeking safety”.

“They are also morally questionable, exacerbating inequality and risking harm to countries’ international standing,” she said.

There are "many clear similarities between the UK-Rwanda deal and the approach Australia has taken for many years in this space with our offshore processing system,” Dr Ghezelbash said.
Offshore processing involves states “outsourcing their responsibility for providing refugee protection by forcefully transferring asylum seekers to another state”, he said.

“In the case of the Rwanda deal and the current Australian policy, those states also take responsibility for resettling and integrating refugees and asylum seekers that are found to be owed protection.”

Dr Ghezelbash warned of “the danger” of Australia’s offshore processing “model being emulated” around the world.

“Offshore processing is being increasingly seen as a desirable approach to meeting the goal of reducing asylum seeker flows and deflecting asylum seekers to other countries,” he said.

“The danger is as more countries jump on board and what was originally an exception becomes the norm.”

'Lives at risk': Human rights concerns for asylum seekers in Rwanda

Asylum seeker advocates in the UK and around the world have raised concerns about a lack of adequate safeguards to prevent Rwanda returning asylum seekers to countries where they may face harm, as well as the potential dangers posed to certain groups including LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers.

Noël Zihabamwe is a human rights advocate and founder of the African Australian Advocacy Centre.

He arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2006, and has since become a citizen and leader among the nation’s Rwandan community.
The United Nations is investigating Mr Zihabamwe’s complaint over the disappearance of his two brothers in Rwanda, who he says were abducted by the Rwandan government due to his refusal to act as an agent for them.

“The Rwandan government is known as a repressive regime that does not tolerate any activist, any opposition, or any other people who may oppose their policies,” Mr Zihabamwe said.

Mr Zihabamwe, whose work involves helping refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, said Rwanda was not equipped to cope with asylum seekers from the United Kingdom.
Noël Zihabamwe standing with arms crossed
Human rights advocate Noël Zihabamwe came to Australia as a refugee in 2006. Credit: Supplied
“Rwanda does not have enough social-economic infrastructure to support an extra influx [of asylum seekers],” he said.

“Already Rwanda hosts more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict and violence in the neighbouring countries, mainly the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. So refugees' access to livelihood opportunities is severely constrained.”

In 2018, Rwandan police shot dead 12 refugees protesting cuts to food rations, drawing from human rights organisations.

“Authorities, instead of listening to them, they stopped by the refugee camps and started beating and killing,” Mr Zihabamwe said.

“So that's why I say that Rwanda's not equipped to care for the asylum seekers.”
Ms Dickinson said the UK-Rwanda deal “places lives at risk”.

“Under the deal, Rwanda is able to send people back to the countries they fled, or to send them to third countries, [exposing them to the risk of] torture, death and other harm,” she said.

“The country also has a worrying human rights record. The European Court of Human Rights, in granting an emergency application preventing the flights, saw evidence that asylum seekers would not have access to fair procedures for determination.”

Ms Dickinson said it was “important to remember that these are people we are talking about, many of whom have fled from torture or who have suffered severe trauma”.

“To treat them in this transactional, cruel way is deeply inhumane,” she said.

Writing in the UK's Daily Telegraph, Johnston Busingye - who is the Rwandan high commissioner in London - said migrants would be treated with "safety, dignity and respect".

He added: "Disappointingly, much of the discussion has either questioned our motives for entering the partnership or doubted our ability to provide safe haven to those in need – as was the case in Friday’s legal proceedings.

"There’s no doubt that we are a work in progress, every country is, but the Rwanda of today is unrecognisable from the country the world was introduced to in 1994."

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8 min read
Published 17 June 2022 at 5:34am
By Isabelle Lane
Source: SBS News