Why can’t the Netherlands conclude an asylum agreement with Rwanda like the UK? And other questions answered

Deport asylum seekers to a safe country? This was made possible by the British Parliament’s controversial ‘Rwanda Agreement’. We asked what you want to know about these and other asylum deals.

Your questions will be answered by Annik Bijnenburg, Assistant Professor of International and European Law at Radboud University, and Researcher in Migration and Asylum Policy with a Focus on Africa Francesco Massini from the Clinkendale Institute.

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What does Rwanda law refer to?

An Act passed by the British Parliament designates Rwanda as a safe country. This will allow people illegally deported to the UK to apply for asylum there.

1. Why visit Rwanda?

“Rwanda is a developing country that does what it says,” begins Masini, a researcher. Having lived and worked in various African countries for a long time, he knows Rwanda very well. “When I was there in the late 1990s, a few years after the genocide, the country had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Meanwhile, things like infrastructure, health and education have improved incredibly.”

“During the construction of the country, it became clear to the West: if you agree to something with Rwanda, they will deliver,” he continues. “The Rwandan government, for example, has agreements with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to transfer refugees from Libyan detention centers to Rwanda.”

“The situation in the Libyan detention centers where refugees were promised asylum in Europe was very bad, but had to wait for the next steps, and those people had to be accommodated elsewhere. Rwanda took on that task. Picobello Accomplished. It has greatly helped the international community,” he said.

And Rwanda not only helps with asylum and migration issues, but also the UN. It is one of the top 5 troop suppliers for peacekeeping missions and helps its military in other countries. “It’s not only classic, but also strategic,” says Massini. “Because the country does so much for the international community, things offset each other. They get little criticism for their actions in the Congo or domestic government policies, and they get a lot of development money from the United Kingdom. And so on.”

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2. It seems more logical to return them immediately to their country of origin without sending them to safe places in Rwanda. Can we legislate to make it possible?

“No, that’s not possible,” says Bijnenburg. “If a country is referred to as a ‘safe country’, that country may be unsafe for someone, for example because they belong to the LGBTI+ community, or because they have a particular political view. So people are always entitled to an individual assessment of their asylum application and if this shows that the country of origin is not really safe for someone, That person should not be sent back.

At the same time, in practice it is sometimes difficult to send people back because we cannot always find out where someone comes from. “Let’s say someone flushes their passport down the toilet on a plane and claims asylum: how do you know where that person is coming from? If the embassies of potential countries refuse to cooperate, we can’t send someone back.”

Annick Bijnenburg and Francesco Massini

3. Will those sent to Rwanda be monitored for safety?

Mazzini: “I don’t think we have to worry too much about it in an economic sense: access to housing and health care will be well organized. Rwanda also receives a lot of money from the United Kingdom.”

What is unclear is the asylum procedure. “It is not the case that asylum seekers in Rwanda are applying for asylum to eventually return to the UK. No, they are applying for asylum to stay in Rwanda.”

“But in Rwanda there is no one to deal with individual asylum applications. So the whole system needs to be built, appeals can be made and procedures put in place. That’s where the danger lies.”

But Masini thinks England will do everything in their power to close it out. “Because when problems arise, you have to make puppets dance, because Rwanda is no longer a safe country. That’s the whole premise of the deal.”

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4. Aren’t these types of agreements a violation of international treaties like human rights?

“It’s now common international law that you can’t send someone back to a country where they’re at risk. It’s something many countries believe, so it’s enshrined in law,” says legal expert Bijnenburg.

When the United Kingdom concluded an agreement with Rwanda in April 2022, it was not accepted without criticism. The British Supreme Court ruled in autumn 2023 that Rwanda is not a safe country and contravenes international human rights treaties such as the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. “In response, the British Parliament has now passed a new law declaring that Rwanda is safe and that fact cannot be challenged.”

Yet Bijnenburg and Masini expect the last word has yet to be said on this. Mazzini: “The British government says it will fly the first people to Rwanda before the summer, but I think there will be all kinds of flights. Challenges in court will come.”

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5. Why can’t the Netherlands make the same deal with Rwanda as the United Kingdom did?

“The United Kingdom left the EU, the Netherlands didn’t,” Bijnenburg explains.

“In the field of asylum, EU member states have entered into collective agreements whereby they have partially transferred their powers to the EU. The question is whether the Netherlands is still authorized to conclude an agreement on asylum with a third country.”

“Additionally, the question is: If the Netherlands is allowed to conclude such an agreement, can it send asylum seekers to Rwanda under EU law? The answer is ‘no’. EU law says. The member state requesting asylum has the right to stay in that country until a decision on the application is made.”

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“That doesn’t exactly happen in the United Kingdom agreement. There, the asylum seeker is sent to Rwanda at the time of application, but the Netherlands cannot do that according to EU law,” concludes the legal expert.

6. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to ensure that those people have a better life in their own country?

“That’s true,” says Bijnenburg. “We can try to improve the economic situation of countries. But this has to be done in a structural way, because history shows that it doesn’t always work well when the West intervenes somewhere else.” Furthermore, Bijnenburg considers migration to be one of all time. “It’s something you can’t stop, you can’t stop people.”

“The United Kingdom is currently trying to do that,” says Massini. They focus entirely on prevention. “They actually only want to deport 3,000 asylum seekers a year to Rwanda, which is a fraction of the total revenue, but the British government hopes this will send a signal that asylum seekers crossing the canal illegally are not welcome.”

Masini believes we need to look more at migration in the long term and from a broader perspective. “There are major crises like now in Sudan, and if we as an international community focus on this, the next refugee crisis will be there. It is our humanitarian duty to take care of refugees, it is up to us. Managing this as best as possible is never the answer.”

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