Memorandum Of Understanding: The UK Government As A ‘Human Rights Abuser’

Close up poster on a pole reading 'Every Human Has Rights'
Amelie Brogden

One of the pre-eminent human rights organisations, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has warned that the UK Government is at risk of being placed on a list of countries which abuse rather than protect human rights, in light of its policy of transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda. Amelie Brogden explores the background behind this warning, and how the government has responded. 

Raising concerns among human rights organisations, HRW questioned how one of the richest countries in the world could outsource its legal procedures. That is, relating to asylum to a country with a questionable human rights record of its own, which is a much less economically developed country, over 6,000 kilometres away.

The Human Rights Act 1998 adopts and enshrines the most fundamental rights and freedoms as set out in the European Convention of Human Rights (“the Convention”), including the prohibition of (i) torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Art 3) and (ii) slavery and forced labour (Art 4). It also provides for a right to liberty and security (Art 5) and a right to private and family life (Art 8).

“The right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”

Further, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides, at Article 14, that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” HRW says that the UK government’s intention to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is incompatible with these principles.

In April 2022, the UK and Rwanda agreed a Migration and Economic Development Partnership. This Memorandum of Understanding aims to: 

  • Provide a new, fair and human asylum system, deterring illegal migration. 
  • Create safe and legal routes for those fleeing persecution. 
  • Enforce better international protection for refugees and a durable solution to those in need whilst preventing abuse. 
  • Facilitate the transfer of asylum seekers and to provide assurance that their claims will be dealt with in accordance with international standards. 

The arrangement between the UK and Rwanda was recently ruled lawful by the Supreme Court. 

The Lords International Agreements Committee report criticised the Government’s decision to implement this new policy by using a Memorandum of Understanding, deeming it as “unacceptable”. It stated that “agreements that fundamentally affect individuals’ rights should be entered into through a formal treaty, so that the rights of those affected can be fully protected.” The issue proposed is that such agreements should not be passed through a Memorandum of Understanding, as this is not formally required to be brought to Parliament. 

The report also states that “several witnesses argued that the agreement risked breaching article 31(1) of the Refugee Convention”. This prevents penalisation for crossing borders in breach of national immigration rules, creating a risk of ‘refoulement’ – the forcible return of an asylum seeker or refugee to a country where they are likely to face persecution. This ultimately places the UK’s Human Rights policies in a position of dispute and threat. 

Non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Refugee Council have raised serious concerns about the legality and morality of the agreement. These organisations argue that it is a violation of international law and human rights to deport people to a country where they may face persecution or harm. 

NGOs argue that the Memorandum of Understanding does not guarantee the safety and well-being of asylum seekers who are deported to Rwanda. There are concerns about the lack of legal and procedural safeguards to protect the rights of individuals who are forcibly removed from the UK and sent to Rwanda. There is a large focus on the risks of harm and persecution for asylum seekers in Rwanda that are too great to justify the deportation policy. 

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Director, says that Ministers need to focus on the real issue – which is the urgent need to fairly and efficiently decide asylum claims while urgently introducing accessible schemes, so people seeking asylum do not have to rely on people smugglers and dangerous journeys.”

The UK Government has defended the agreement, stating that it is committed to upholding human rights and that it has safeguards in place to protect the rights of asylum seekers who are deported to Rwanda. Former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that “We are confident that our new Migration Partnership is fully compliant with our international legal obligations, but nevertheless we expect this will be challenged in the courts.”

A moral and legal obligation to protect the rights of asylum seekers

The controversy over the Memorandum of Understanding highlights the difficult choices that governments face when dealing with migration and asylum seekers. On one hand, countries have a right to control their borders and manage migration in a way that promotes the safety and security of their citizens. On the other hand, they also have a moral and legal obligation to protect the rights of asylum seekers and to provide them with a safe haven from persecution and harm. 

The UK Supreme Court’s ruling that the Memorandum of Understanding was lawful and could be upheld came as a blow to human rights organisations who had raised concerns about the agreement since its inception. The court found that the Memorandum of Understanding was compatible with the UK’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, as it did not violate the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

The court also found that the UK Government has taken sufficient steps to ensure that the rights of asylum seekers would be protected in Rwanda, including monitoring their treatment and providing them with access to legal representation. 

The most recent developments happening right now involve the UK Government taking steps to tackle illegal immigration through the small boat cross channel route, with a bill passing through Parliament (The Illegal Immigration Bill) that would see all migrants using illegal routes at risk of immediate deportation either back to their country of origin or to Rwanda or a “safe” third country. 

Overall, the debate surrounding the Memorandum of Understanding, and now the draft bill, highlights the ongoing priority of upholding human rights and the rule of law. This is especially, in complex and challenging situations where the UK Government is challenged by Parliament and Human Rights organisations. 

Amelie Brogden

Featured image courtesy of Markus Spiske on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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