U.K. Plan to Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda Stokes Anger and Dread

FOLKESTONE, England — Nearly every day, Kamal Mohamad calls home to his parents in Iraq from the converted military barracks on the outskirts of Folkestone, a coastal town in Kent, southeastern England, where he is awaiting a decision on his asylum claim.

But when he spoke to his parents two weeks ago, they were inconsolable.

“My dad called me, he was crying,” Mr. Mohamad, 24, said. “He was so scared the government would send me to Rwanda, but I told him, don’t worry.”

The British government’s announcement last month of a contentious plan to send some asylum seekers to the African country has brought confusion and concern to many, like Mr. Mohamad, who arrived here on small boats that crossed the English Channel, or by other irregular means.

It is still unclear whom the policy would affect or how the government would carry out its plan. Asylum seekers, many of whom fled war zones and then underwent dangerous journeys to reach Britain, say that the ambiguity is an additional burden that weighs heavily on them.

The former Napier Barracks, in Folkestone. About 320 men have been housed in the converted buildings.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Aid groups supporting asylum seekers, who are scattered across Britain in hostels, hotels and other temporary housing, emphasized that the new policy had deepened the uncertainty for people who were already in precarious situations. And even many local residents of Kent, where small boats carrying migrants often arrive after crossing the English Channel, say the plan seems unfair.

Mr. Mohamad, who is Kurdish, arrived in England last year aboard a crowded dinghy. He isone of around 320 men seeking asylum who are currently housed in the former Napier Barracks in Folkestone.

“I had no other options,” Mr. Mohamad said of his flight from Iraq. “We have so many problems in my country. We came just to stay alive.”

Because he arrived before this year, Mr. Mohamad said he thought that it was unlikely the new policy would apply to him. But despite his reassuring words to his father, he acknowledged that he was worried. And he said many newer arrivals were very concerned about being sent to Rwanda.

Katie Sweetingham, 39, the emergency response team leader for Care4Calais, an aid group that supports refugees, said that her organization had received dozens of frantic messages since the government’s plan was announced.

A volunteer with the aid group Care4Calais, center right, spoke with asylum seekers in Folkestone in April.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“They already don’t know what their future holds, but then you’ve got this horrible thing hanging over you,” she said. “I think it’s just another thing to traumatize people.”

Ms. Sweetingham and 21 other volunteers monitor boat arrivals along the Kent coastline, greeting and offering hot drinks to people who come ashore. Care4Calais also offers support to those living in Napier Barracks and in other temporary accommodation.

“These are vulnerable people, and they are not a threat,” Ms. Sweetingham said of the migrants.

In a statement, the Home Office said that the partnership with Rwanda would “overhaul our broken asylum system,” adding, “There is nothing in the U.N. Refugee Convention which prevents removal to a safe country.”

But international rights experts and groups representing asylum seekers say that the measures would indeed contravene that legislation, the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the United Nations refugee agency, U.N.H.C.R., has denounced the policy.

So far, Britain’s plan is short on detail, but it says that everyone who “comes to the U.K. illegally, or by dangerous or unnecessary methods” — including by small boat — since the start of this year will be considered for relocation to Rwanda.

Migrants picked up in the English Channel were brought into port at Dover by a rescue boat in September.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The proposal has led to a backlash from lawmakers in the opposition, and even from some in the governing Conservative Party. It has also reportedly caused upheaval within the Home Office and drawn protest from senior civil servants. Opponents say that the policy would fail to have the intended deterrent effect and could be expensive for taxpayers.

Rights groups say that the plan is being used to score political points at a time when Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure.

The policy is about the visibility of the migrants who arrive by boat “and the political capital to be made out of that visibility,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, the refugee and migrant rights program director for Amnesty U.K.

“All that is going to happen is that a relatively small number of desperately unfortunate people are going to be arbitrarily singled out to be expelled from this country to Rwanda, and goodness knows what may happen to them,” he added.

Asylum seekers make up a small fraction of those migrating to Britain, and almost all of those who arrive by small boat claim asylum. Of all asylum applications, nearly two-thirds were found to be genuine refugees in 2021.

Kings Cross, in central London, where many asylum seekers are housed. Claimants can spend months or years in temporary accommodation without the legal ability to work or go to school.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

While boat crossings have increased in the past two years, asylum applications are still down significantly from a peak two decades ago. Migration experts say that is probably because of a shift in routes. Nonetheless, the boat arrivals have become a focus for the Conservative government.

The government backtracked on one immigration measure last Monday, withdrawing its authorization to turn back boats — a policy from last fall that never actually went into practice.

That move came after a legal challenge by several groups, including a union representing border officers who are tasked with carrying out the policy. Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, which was also involved in the lawsuit, said that efforts were now underway to challenge the Rwanda policy, which she called “another staggeringly expensive exercise when we should be helping people.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, around 20 young men living in a hostel in London gathered in the basement of a church for games, snacks and English lessons organized by Care4Calais.

A Care4Calais gathering to support asylum seekers, held in the basement of a church in central London in April.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Most had fled war, political repression or persecution. They came from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Syria, among other countries. Some had come by boat. Some were smuggled in the back of trucks from Europe. Others arrived by plane with fake documents.

At one table, a volunteer was explaining the rules of Uno. At another, four men gathered around a game of Jenga, erupting in laughter when the wooden blocks tumbled.

One man at the gathering, Medhi, 31, an Iranian who asked that only his first name be used because of safety fears, described arriving in Britain three months ago by plane after fleeing persecution from his family for converting to Christianity.

Medhi shared a photograph of his back that showed severe wounds from lashes that he said his father had inflicted. Medhi said he was worried that the government would send him to Rwanda or back home.

A center for processing asylum seekers in Dover. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“I fear for that decision,” he said of the possibility of being sent to Rwanda. “I want to stay here.”

Many local residents in Kent, even some whose perspectives veered toward anti-immigrant sentiment, said the Rwanda policy did not sit well with them.

“I don’t agree with them coming over here illegally, but then, once they come over here, the least we can do is help if we can,” said Kerrie Heath, 33, who was shopping in Folkestone. “They are just trying to get somewhere they can better their lives.”

Many adult asylum seekers spend months or years in temporary accommodation without the legal ability to work or go to school while their applications and potential appeals are processed.

Boats used by migrants crossing the English Channel, tied to a dock in Dover in April.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Marc Elsdon, 41, a military veteran who was having a drink with his girlfriend in the refurbished harbor area of Folkestone, said that he was ashamed of the Rwanda policy.

“We are open to anyone trying to start a new life,” he said, noting that many of the migrants were fleeing war. “I am sure if it happened here, we would be going to another country for help.”

About 15 minutes from the coast, volunteers with the local charity Napier Friends chatted under the afternoon sun recently with a group of asylum seekers from the converted barracks, who were helping to plant a community garden.

Asylum seekers and members of the charity Napier Friends did volunteer work at a farm in Kent in April.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Among a group shoveling soil was Zana, 28, from Iraqi Kurdistan. He, too, asked that his last name not be used because of safety concerns. Zana worked as an English teacher and was a translator for the coalition forces that fought the Islamic State in Iraq.

“My life was in danger there,” he said, describing being attacked for his work with the coalition. He tried to apply for a resettlement visa but that proved “impossible,” he said, so he arranged to be smuggled across Europe in the back of a truck, then to England by boat seven months ago.

Now, he says, he feels abandoned by the countries he spent years helping.

“I had a great life there, but I had to leave it,” he said of Iraq. “I expected a lot better here.”

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