Britain will send migrants and asylum-seekers who cross the English Channel thousands of miles away to Rwanda under a controversial deal announced Thursday as the government tries to clamp down on record numbers of people making the perilous journey.
"From today ... anyone entering the United Kingdom illegally, as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1, may now be relocated to Rwanda," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a speech near Dover in southeastern England.
"Rwanda will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead," Johnson said.
He called the East African nation with a sketchy human rights record "one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants."
Johnson was elected partly on promises to curb illegal immigration but has instead seen record numbers making the risky channel crossing.
He also announced that Britain's border agency would hand responsibility for patrolling the channel for migrant boats to the navy.
More than 28,000 people arrived in Britain having crossed the channel from France in small boats in 2021.
Around 90% of those were male, and three-quarters were men between 18 and 39 years old.
The Rwanda plan swiftly drew the ire of opposition politicians who accused Johnson of trying to distract from his fine for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules, while rights groups slammed the project as "inhumane."
The United Nations' refugee agency voiced its strong opposition, with Gillian Triggs, the UNHCR assistant high commissioner for protection saying, "People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing."
European Commission spokesman Balazs Ujvari did not directly comment on the British decision but stressed that it "raises fundamental questions about the access to asylum procedures and protection in line with the demands of international law."
Ghana and Rwanda had previously been mentioned as possible locations for the U.K. to outsource the processing of migrants, but Ghana in January denied involvement.
Instead, Kigali on Thursday announced that it had signed a multimillion-dollar deal to do the job, during a visit by British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
"Rwanda welcomes this partnership with the United Kingdom to host asylum-seekers and migrants and offer them legal pathways to residence" in the East African nation, Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said in a statement.
The deal with Rwanda will be funded by the U.K. to the tune of up to $157 million, with migrants "integrated into communities across the country," it said.
In Dover, where many migrants arrive after crossing the channel, some residents welcomed the announcement.
"They should be sent back, because it is not our responsibility," said retiree Andy, 68.
"Our responsibility is to look after our own people, which we aren't doing," the heavily tattooed army veteran told AFP.
"I understand people escaping from repression, I do. But if they're coming over here for one thing and that is money, to me, that is wrong."
Refugee Action's Tim Naor Hilton accused the government of "offshoring its responsibilities onto Europe's former colonies instead of doing our fair share to help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet."
"This grubby cash-for-people plan would be a cowardly, barbaric and inhumane way to treat people fleeing persecution and war," he said.
Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the plan would "complicate" the process for Syrians seeking refuge in the U.K.
"Syrian refugees are desperate to reach a place of safety," Hardman told AFP.
"The U.K.'s agreement with Rwanda will only complicate this pursuit.
"They will arrive and expect to be treated according to the fundamental values the U.K. says it upholds, but will instead be transferred somewhere, miles away."
Australia has a policy of sending asylum-seekers arriving by boat to detention camps on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, with Canberra vowing no asylum-seeker arriving by boat would ever be allowed to permanently settle in Australia.
Since 2015, the U.K. has "offered a place to over 185,000 men, women and children seeking refuge — more than any other similar resettlement schemes in Europe," Johnson said.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, Germany received the highest number of asylum applicants (127,730) in Europe in 2021, followed by France (96,510), while the U.K. received the fourth largest number of applicants (44,190).