LONDON — Vowing to make good on Brexit promises to control Britain’s borders, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday announced a crackdown on smuggling routes across the English Channel, saying migrants who do not meet strict asylum criteria will be flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda for possible resettlement there.
Under the plan, which requires the approval of Parliament, most migrants who cross illegally will be deemed inadmissible for claiming asylum because their journeys will have taken them through safe countries before their arrival in Britain.
Johnson suggested that “tens of thousands” of such migrants could be sent to Rwanda, a Commonwealth nation, which could either accept them as refugees or send them to their home countries.
With 80 million displaced people in the world, many fleeing poverty and violence, Britain is not alone in seeking to make illegal migration harder — and to move the asylum process “offshore.”
Denmark also explored a migration deal with Rwanda last year. Israel tried convincing illegal migrants from Eritrea and Sudan to accept cash and a one-way ticket to Rwanda in a pilot program.
The European Union is continuing to task the Libyan coast guard with pushing migrant vessels in the Mediterranean back toward North Africa. In 2019, the Trump administration sent to Guatemala 900 asylum seekers who had crossed the U.S. border. President Biden suspended the program.
Johnson is taking a page from the Trump playbook. British officials say all inadmissible adults who arrive starting Jan. 1 will be sent to Rwanda on chartered jets. Britain will not send children or unaccompanied minors, nor will officials break up families with children.
Individuals deemed to have viable asylum claims may remain in Britain to pursue their cases, but they will no longer be housed in hotels. Instead, they will live in former military barracks in northern England.
“It’s a striking fact that around 7 out of 10 of those arriving in small boats last year were men under 40, paying people smugglers to queue-jump and taking up our capacity to help genuine women and child refugees,” Johnson said.
“This is particularly perverse as those attempting crossings are not directly fleeing imminent peril as is the intended purpose of our asylum system,” he said. “They have passed through manifestly safe countries, including many in Europe, where they could — and should — have claimed asylum.”
British Home Secretary Priti Patel traveled to Rwanda on Thursday to sign the deal, which includes $160 million in aid to that country. The plan, part of a new Nationality and Borders Bill, now goes to Parliament. Johnson’s Conservative Party holds a large majority there.
Yvette Cooper, a leader of the opposition Labour Party, called the proposal “unworkable, unethical and extortionate.” Cooper tweeted that Australia, which sends unauthorized migrants who arrive by sea to third countries, has spent billions of dollars on the program. She warned that Britain will, too.
Australia long sent asylum seekers who arrived by boat to processing centers on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the small Pacific island nation of Nauru.
Australia reaffirmed its deal with Nauru last year, reiterating its hard-line policy. “Anyone who attempts an illegal maritime journey to Australia will be turned back, or taken to Nauru for processing. They will never settle in Australia,” Karen Andrews, the minister for home affairs, said in a statement.
Advocacy groups in Britain warned that the measures could violate human rights. “I think it’s rather extraordinary that the government is obsessing with control instead of focusing on competence and compassion,” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, told BBC radio.
Johnson conceded that legal challenges would probably seek to block the plan’s implementation. He denied that the measures were “draconian or lacking in compassion,” saying it was far worse to let people drown in the channel. And he denounced the traffickers as “vile.”
“Smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children drowning in unseaworthy boats and suffocating in refrigerated lorries,” he said.
Johnson predicted that the plan would soon be adopted as “an international model.”
The Trump administration’s deal with Guatemala permitted the United States to send it asylum seekers who had crossed the U.S. border. It negotiated similar arrangements with Honduras and El Salvador, though those were never implemented. All three deals were suspended when Biden took office.
Advocates warned that Guatemala was unprepared to house asylum seekers or offer them long-term refuge. By the end of the Trump administration, not a single migrant sent to Guatemala had received asylum there, in part because of bureaucratic delays. Many said they didn’t know they were being sent to Guatemala until their planes arrived in its capital.
The British prime minister said his goal was “to break the business model” of the smuggling gangs, which can make $400,000 for each launch of an unseaworthy dinghy. He said he was sending a message that people who cross illegally “risk ending up not in the U.K. but in Rwanda.” He described this as “a considerable deterrent.”
Bulama Bukarti, a Nigerian human rights lawyer in London, said Johnson contradicted his own government’s assessment of Rwanda when he called it “one of the safest countries in the world.”
In an assessment last year, Britain recommended that the East African nation launch probes into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in state custody, forced disappearances and torture. “It’s a clear case of Europe thinking Europeans at risk are more entitled to live in peace and build a better life than people from Africa,” Bukarti said, referring to the several million Ukrainians who have fled their homeland since Russia’s invasion. Britain has granted 25,000 visas to those refugees, though many have not yet arrived.
Critics of Rwanda’s president have faced arbitrary detentions and beatings on a regular basis, noted Lewis Mudge, central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, and trials are known to lack fairness. “Anyone even perceived as critical to the government or its policies can be targeted,” he said in a statement Thursday.
Not all migrants to Britain arrive in rickety boats after braving the English Channel’s fast-moving tides and frequent storms. Some are smuggled in shipping containers, cargo trucks and trains through the undersea tunnel from France. In 2019, the bodies of 39 Vietnamese people — including two boys and eight women — were found in a refrigerated tractor-trailer abandoned by its driver in southeast England. In a single incident in November, at least 27 migrants died while attempting the crossing.
More than 28,500 people were apprehended last year trying to enter Britain via the channel, up from 8,400 in 2020.
About 600 people made the crossing Wednesday. Johnson warned that thousands a day might attempt it in the coming weeks, as the weather warms and the sea calms.
“I accept that these people — whether 600 or 1,000 — are in search of a better life,” he said. “But it is these hopes, these dreams, that have been exploited.”
The prime minister stressed that the British people are welcoming and generous but that illegal immigration put an unsustainable burden on the country’s schools, health-care system and welfare state.
“We cannot sustain a parallel illegal system,” he said. “Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not.”
Kevin Sieff in Mexico City and Danielle Paquette in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.