5 min read  | Diaspora & Refugees, Politics

‘I won’t go. I’d rather die’: The agony of two detained Syrian asylum seekers facing deportation from the UK to Rwanda


June 9, 2022

BEIRUT – A few weeks ago, as E. reached British shores after crossing the English Channel by boat from France, United Kingdom border authorities rushed him into a bus, placed him in a detention center and informed him he would be deported to Rwanda.

“I told them that I would kill myself, I am not going to Rwanda,” said E., who spoke to Syria Direct under condition of anonymity from the migrant detention center where he is being held.

E. is one of the 17 Syrian asylum seekers affected by a controversial UK-Rwanda deal, signed last April, to deport asylum seekers who arrived to British territory irregularly since January 2022 to Rwanda, a country with a poor human rights record.

NGOs estimate 82 people have been detained and received deportation notices so far. Most of them are from Sudan, Syria and Albania, but there are also nationals from Egypt, Iran, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Algeria, Chad and Turkey.  

This deal is “essentially ripping apart the very foundation of the refugee convention and refugee rights which were established after the Second World War,” Yasmine Ahmed, the UK Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said. “It also undermines the foundation of collective responsibility; the majority of states in the world that are hosting refugees are among those with the lowest GDPs.” Developing countries host around 85 percent of the world’s refugees.

Several UK organizations have taken legal action against the deal for contravening international refugee law, and these challenges in court could halt the first deportation flight scheduled for June 14.

Detained in Libya, detained in the UK

This is not the first time E. has been detained. After fleeing southern Syria, E. landed in Libya. There, he was detained for forty days, trapped like many migrants and asylum seekers in a system of abuse and extortion by prison brokers that has mushroomed in Libya, a country embroiled in chaos for the past decade and a major stop on the migration route to Europe. 

After paying a bribe to be released from detention in Libya, E. crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a dinghy, traversing the world’s deadliest migration route that has taken 23,939 lives since 2014, according to the Missing Migrants Project.

Once in Italy, he headed for France with the hope of starting a new life in the UK and bringing his wife from Syria through family reunification. “We heard that the UK is a great country that respects human rights, and I have friends and relatives here, that’s why I decided to come to Britain,” E. said.

The UK government’s plan, though, crushed E’s dreams. “In the UK, they welcomed me by putting me in this prison, like I was a criminal.”

E. has no date of deportation set yet. Neither does S., another Syrian asylum seeker in the same detention center who arrived in the UK last month hoping to reunite with his brother, who lives in London.

S. also planned to bring his wife and children from Syria, but now he faces an uncertain future. “They are destroying our lives, sending us to Rwanda—a country I have no connection with,” he said.

He said he was briefly detained and tortured twice in Syria before fleeing the country. Like E., S. was also detained in Libya on his journey to Europe. “Every country I go to, I get detained,” he said. “I’m psychologically exhausted.”

Speaking from a UK detention center by phone, S. was adamant that he would not board the deportation flight. “I won’t go. I’d rather die.”

Legal challenges could thwart the deal

Three NGOs and a trade union in the UK have brought two court challenges against the deal, demanding the government clarify the criteria and legal proceedings for deportation. 

These legal actions could halt the first deportation flight scheduled to leave in less than a week. “There’s little chance that there will be a flight on the 14th on the basis that it is likely that legal proceedings will be instituted,” explained HRW’s Yasmine Ahmed, adding that an injunction, a court order requiring a person to cease doing a specific action, could halt the flight. Any injunction would  “last until the legal proceedings have finalized which probably will go all the way to the UK Supreme Court, and this process can take a couple of years,” Ahmed added. 

Were the UK Supreme Court to uphold the deportation agreement, “there would be the opportunity for those individuals to make an application to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR),” Ahmed explained. The ECHR could also file an injunction and prevent the British government from starting the deportation “until it has heard the case as well.”

But even if a court order pauses deportations, it raises the question of what would happen to the 82 detainees. The Home Office has the administrative power to detain foreign nationals at any point in their immigration process. In the UK, migrants and asylum seekers are detained in six privatized Immigration Removal Centers, short-term holding facilities and prisons

Unlike other European countries, “the UK has no statutory limit on the amount of time a person can be held in immigration detention, so that can result in people being indefinitely detained,” explained Emilie McDonnell, the Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at HRW UK.

According to removal laws in the UK, the question of whether to keep a foreign national in detention or not revolves around the imminence of their deportation. “If the government can show that their removal is imminent, then they can keep them in detention,” McDonnell explained. “However, if the lawyers can argue that is not imminent because there’s no prospect of them being removed, then they need to be released on bail.”

In 2019, 30 percent of immigration detainees were deported and 70 percent stayed in the UK, according to data by the Association of Visitors to Immigration Detainees (AVID).

A ‘colonial undertone’

The Memorandum of Understanding signed by the UK and Rwandan governments establishes that Rwanda will receive £120 million ($157 million) from the UK in exchange for accepting asylum seekers. “There’s a real colonial undertone to some of this, to the extent that you are enticing countries to take those refugees by providing them money and exploiting this inequity between states,” Ahmed said. 

This deal fits “the trend that we’ve seen globally around externalization and expulsion of people that are seeking protection, particularly in European countries, the US and Australia,” she added.

The timing of the deal can be also linked to local politics. On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a no-confidence vote in Parliament for breaking COVID-19 rules. Although he won the vote, 41 percent of his party voted against him. “This announcement is directly linked to Johnson’s turmoil in his leadership,” in Ahmed’s view. She dubbed the plan a “diversion tactic” by Johnson, as the deal “will be speaking to some of his constituency.” 

With no access to the internet and scarce access to phone calls, the 17 Syrians detained in the UK are waiting to see if their journey fleeing conflict in Syria ends in Rwanda. “My message to the UK government is to accept our asylum claim, and let us live a life like everyone else,” E. said.

*The identities of the two Syrian asylum seekers have been withheld with the pseudonyms E. and S. for safety reasons. 

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