All 1 Jill Mortimer contributions to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024

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Mon 18th Mar 2024

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill Debate

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Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill

Jill Mortimer Excerpts
Consideration of Lords amendments
Monday 18th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments as at 18 March 2024 - (18 Mar 2024)
Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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The Rwandans host more than 100,000 refugees on their border who have come over from neighbouring countries such as Burundi and the Congo because of conflict in those countries. They are people from neighbouring countries who have the ambition to go back to their own country as soon as they can, and they live in refugee camps on the border. They are a completely different category from asylum seekers who have sought to come to the UK and who are going to be sent to Rwanda. That is not just my view; that was the view of the UNHCR.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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I will give way to the hon. Member who is a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

--- Later in debate ---
Jill Mortimer Portrait Jill Mortimer
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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. I was also in that meeting with the UNHCR. Is it not also true that when we questioned the officials about their motivation for why they felt that we should not be sending our asylum seekers there for processing, they were very clear that it was because they felt that we were shirking our responsibility, that we should be taking all those asylum seekers, and that we had the capacity to. Is it not also true that, in that meeting, they agreed that they based their emergency transit base there, that they sponsor scholarships in Rwandan universities for refugees. It is a very safe place. Let me quote from my own notes. I said, “So, it's nothing to do with safety. It was because you feel that we should be doing this ourselves.” And they said, “Yes.”

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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I, too, have detailed notes of our meeting with the people from UNHCR. The hon. Lady is right to say that the UNHCR said quite clearly that it thinks that the United kingdom is shirking its responsibilities, and actually so do I. That is my personal belief. I base that on the number of refugees there are in the world: there are more than 100 million displaced people and more than 36 million refugees in the world. Really quite a small number of them make their way to the shores of the United Kingdom. There will be a hell of a lot more in the years to come because of climate change, and my very firm belief is that the United Kingdom needs to shoulder its responsibilities as one of the richer countries in the world, rather than shuffling these people off on to a country such as Rwanda which, as we saw, has made great strides, but it cannot be compared with the United Kingdom in wealth.

A little more about why I do not believe that Rwanda can yet be described as a safe country: I mentioned in an intervention that it is important to read the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court judgment in its entirety, particularly paragraphs 75 to 105. The decision was based on a number of things: evidence about the general human rights situation in Rwanda, the adequacy of Rwanda’s current asylum system, and Rwanda’s failure to meet its obligations under a similar agreement regarding asylum seekers with Israel in 2013. There was a lot to the judgment. It is very rich in detail. The Court considered a lot of evidence over a long period. It is really not an adequate acknowledgment of the exercise in which the Supreme Court was engaged to simply say that a few months later an Act of Parliament can change the reality on the ground and solve all the legitimate concerns that the Supreme Court had about the situation in Rwanda.

Yes, the United Kingdom Government have entered into a new agreement, but the trouble is that none of the new measures to which Rwanda and the UK have agreed are yet properly in place. The UK Government’s insistence that, since the Supreme Court’s considered judgment last year, Rwanda has miraculously become a safe country for asylum seekers can only be described as a legal fiction. Nothing I saw on the ground in Kigali led me to doubt that. When we were there, the relevant legislation was still going through the Parliament. The legal reforms and new systems agreed had yet to be put in place, and although training had commenced it was still very much in its infancy.

The Supreme Court found that the Rwandans were acting in good faith, but that

“intentions and aspirations do not necessarily correspond to reality”.

Having spent some time in Rwanda, and met with Rwandan Government officials, healthcare workers, Ministers, lawyers, those who will deliver the legal training, its national commission for human rights and non-governmental organisations, I think that the Supreme Court got it right: the Rwandans are acting in good faith, but intentions and aspirations do not correspond to reality.

We heard a very interesting fact: owing to their recent history, 80% of Rwandans have themselves been refugees. As I said, on their borders they accommodate well over 100,000 refugees and displaced persons from neighbouring countries. Many of the Rwandans I met were at pains to emphasise to me that they see refugees as their friends, their brothers and their sisters. I was very struck by how their attitude contrasts with the UK Government’s hostility towards asylum seekers and desire to offload both their legal and, I believe, their moral responsibilities to asylum seekers on to others.

When the Joint Committee on Human Rights considered the UK Government’s original agreement with Rwanda and the Illegal Migration Act 2023, we expressed concern that the policy

“could be seen as an outsourcing of the UK’s own obligations under the Refugee Convention to another country.”

I know that not everyone will agree with that, but given the number of displaced persons and refugees in the world compared with the tiny fraction we take, I think that we are not living up to our moral obligations. Clearly, there is a legal argument that we are not doing so. The Joint Committee on Human Rights also said, back when we considered the original agreement with Rwanda and the 2023 Act:

“Removing asylum seekers to a state where they face a real risk of serious human rights abuses, or of being sent on to a dangerous third country as a result of an inadequate asylum system, is inconsistent with the UK’s human rights obligations”.

--- Later in debate ---
Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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The document was withdrawn for a while and updated in January, so I only saw it and read it in detail just before my trip to Rwanda. I was really quite appalled that Government Ministers could continue to state that Rwanda is a safe country from a human rights perspective in the face of the evidence that they themselves collated. I really want to hear a colourable answer to that point.

Before the Joint Committee on Human Rights left the UK, we took steps to find out about the human rights situation in Rwanda. The evidence that we heard gave me great cause for concern about the curtailment of freedom of expression in Rwanda for those who wish to criticise the Government. The US State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported evidence of unlawful or arbitrary killings, disappearances and torture. One area of particular concern for asylum seekers sent from the UK is the protection of same-sex-attracted and transgender people. The Foreign Office travel advice for Rwanda warns British gay people and British trans people that individuals

“can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities. There are no specific anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT+ individuals”.

When I put that to Government officials and others with whom we met, I was reassured that the Rwandan constitution contains a general protection against discrimination, which it does, but sexuality and gender identity are not listed there. Crucially, nobody was able to show me any evidence that a gay or transgender person has ever availed themselves of the anti-discrimination protections in the constitution. People were at great pains to tell me that homosexuality and transgenderism are not criminal offences in Rwanda. Sorry to be light-hearted, but whoop-de-doo. As a lesbian, I can tell the House that the mere fact that one is not criminalised is only the start of the story.

I think Rwanda is where the UK was on LGBT rights about 50 years ago. Yes, it is ahead of many other African countries because it is not illegal to be gay or trans in Rwanda, but there are no positive rights and no equal rights protections. We need to acknowledge that, because there are people who come to the United Kingdom because they are gay, transexual or transgender, and they know that we in the United Kingdom have great, world-class equal rights for gay and transgender people. If they are coming here for those protections, they are perfectly entitled to be concerned about being sent to a country such as Rwanda, where no such protections exist.

Many others come to this country because they were dissidents in their country—they have criticised their Government. They come to the United Kingdom, because —so far at least; touch wood—we still have freedom of expression. I am not sure that Rwanda can be described as having the same freedom of expression protections that we enjoy in the UK.

Asylum seekers also come to this country who have been human rights defenders in their country and have been persecuted for it. Again, touch wood, we in this country still have full human rights protections. That, based on the evidence of the Home Office itself, is not the position in Rwanda.

Jill Mortimer Portrait Jill Mortimer
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I thank the hon. and learned Lady for giving way again. The anti-discrimination law in the Rwandan constitution is not something that just ethereally hangs there. In fact, is it not true that, because of their recent history of genocide, it is a deeply ingrained feeling among Rwandans that everybody is equal and there is no discrimination? The law does not even allow asking someone whether they are Tutsi or Hutu. They are very, very sensitive to anybody discriminating about anything. Is it not also true that the heads of two non-governmental LGBT organisations we spoke to were very clear? We had a very good dig into this. My hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) asked them whether it would be okay for gay people to hold hands walking down the street in Rwanda, and their answer was, “Yes, of course.” The hon. and learned Lady then asked if there might be—

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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Order. That is a speech, not an intervention. I am terribly sorry, but I must ask the hon. Lady to resume her seat.