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UN expert urges UK to halt transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda



A young migrant from Darfur waits to reach England from Calais, France.

A UN human rights expert on Friday urged the United Kingdom to halt its controversial policy of transferring some asylum seekers to Rwanda and expressed serious concern that the two country’s asylum partnership arrangement violates international law, and risks causing irreparable harm to those seeking international protection.

“There are serious risks that the international law principle of non-refoulement will be breached by forcibly transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda,” said Siobhán Mullally, the UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

“People seeking international protection, fleeing conflict and persecution, have the right to seek and enjoy asylum – a fundamental tenet of international human rights and refugee law,” she said.

The Special Rapporteur welcomed urgent interim measures by the European Court of Human Rights that grounded a flight earlier this week, due to transfer a small group of asylum seekers to the central African nation.

Increased risk of exploitation

Transferring asylum seekers to third countries does nothing to prevent or combat human trafficking, in fact it is likely to push desperate people into riskier and more dangerous situations,” Ms. Mullally said. “Rather than reducing trafficking in persons, it is likely to increase risks of exploitation.”

The Special Rapporteur expressed concern that the arrangement fails to safeguard the rights of asylum seekers who are victims of trafficking and seeking protection in the United Kingdom. These victims and persons at risk of trafficking could be transferred under the arrangement, she said.

‘Inadequate safeguards’

“There are inadequate safeguards to ensure that victims of trafficking or persons at risk of trafficking are identified, given assistance and ensured effective access to international protection. They risk further victimisation and trauma by being transferred to a third country,” added the Special Rapporteur.

“I am also concerned that there are insufficient guarantees against risks of trafficking or re-trafficking for those who may be denied asylum, or arbitrarily removed to another state from Rwanda”.

Ms. Mullally echoed concerns by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees about difficulties that arise in disclosing traumatic experiences – such as trafficking – in screening interviews for asylum seekers, usually conducted shortly after arrival.

Under the arrangement, UK authorities will conduct an initial screening before deciding on whether an individual may be transferred.

The independent expert said the initial screening was not sufficient to identify and recognise the specific protection needs of asylum seekers, including victims of trafficking.

Previous human rights concerns

The Special Rapporteur has previously raised her concerns regarding the Nationality and Borders Bill, and its potential adverse impact on the human rights of victims of trafficking.

She has also repeatedly raised concerns with the international community, about the increasing tendency to place migration within a criminal law enforcement paradigm.

“Restrictive migration-related measures are presented as part of efforts to combat organized crime, including trafficking in persons, regardless of how the measures may affect the human rights of migrants and trafficked persons,” the UN expert said.

Make migration safer

She urged States to expand pathways for safe, orderly and regular migration without discrimination, in order to combat trafficking in persons.

Resettlement programmes, family reunification measures and provision of humanitarian visas were more effective ways to prevent trafficking of those fleeing persecution and conflict, the Special Rapporteur said.

She called on all States to uphold their international obligations regarding the principle of non-refoulement in international law, which guarantees that no person should be returned to a country where they could face irreparable harm.

We must not allow the objective of combating human trafficking to be misused, in an attempt to undermine the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, and the principle of non-refoulement”, she concluded.

Special Rapporteurs report to the Human Rights Council and operate in their individual capacity. They are not UN staff and are not paid for their work. 

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