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Airlines urged not to facilitate UK-Rwanda asylum transfers

© Unsplash/Heidi Fin The Houses of Parliament in London, United Kingdom.

Independent UN experts have expressed concern over the role airlines and aviation authorities could have in the unlawful removal of asylum seekers from the United Kingdom to Rwanda under an agreement between the two governments and the proposed Safety of Rwanda bill. 

Two years ago, London announced the Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP), now referred to as the UK-Rwanda Asylum Partnership, which stated that asylum seekers in the UK would be sent to Rwanda before their cases could be heard.

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The national Rwandan asylum system would then consider their need for international protection.

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court said the policy was unlawful due to safety concerns in Rwanda. In response, the UK and Rwanda created the new bill, declaring Rwanda a safe country, among other stipulations.

Risk of refoulement 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is working on having the bill passed and recently said that the first flight transporting asylum seekers is set to leave in 10 to 12 weeks, around July, according to international media reports.

However, the UN Special Rapporteurs warned that removing asylum seekers to Rwanda, or anywhere else, could put airlines and aviation authorities at risk of refoulement – the forced return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where they may face persecution, torture or other serious harm – “which would violate the right to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The experts said that “even if the UK-Rwanda agreement and the Safety of Rwanda bill are approved, airlines and aviation regulators could be complicit in violating internationally protected human rights and court orders by facilitating removals to Rwanda.”

They added that airlines should be held responsible if they assist in the removal of asylum seekers from the UK.

The UN experts have been in contact with the UK Government and national, European and international aviation regulators to remind them of their responsibilities, including under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The UN Human Rights Council appoints Special Rapporteurs to monitor and report on global situations and issues. They serve in their individual capacity, are not UN staff, are independent of any government or organization and are not compensated for their work.

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