(Refiles to fix typo in paragraph 2 to ‘small’)
By Alistair Smout
DUNGENESS, England -Britain could send tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda to be resettled under a new partnership, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday as he outlined measures designed to tackle the problem of cross-Channel migration.
“We must ensure that the only route to asylum in the UK is a safe and legal one,” Johnson said in a speech on Thursday in Kent, southeast England, where thousands of migrants in small boats landed on Channel beaches last year.
“Those who try to jump the queue or abuse our systems will find no automatic path to set them up in our country, but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin,” the Conservative prime minister said.
Anyone who had arrived in Britain illegally since Jan. 1 could now be relocated to Rwanda, in central Africa, which would disrupt the business model of people-smuggling gangs, he said.
“The deal we have done is unmapped and Rwanda will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead,” he said.
The plan drew swift and strong criticism from opposition parties, with interior minister Priti Patel’s Labour party counterpart, Yvette Cooper, saying it was “extortionate as well as unworkable and unethical”.
Johnson said he knew the plan would be criticised and would face legal challenges, but he promised to do whatever it took to deliver it.
The government said Britain would contribute an initial 120 million pounds ($157.55 million) to the partnership.
A government minister said the plan was focused on single young men. “This is about male economic migrants in the main,” Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart told Sky News. “There is a different set of issues with women and children.”
Patel was in Kigali, Rwanda, on Thursday to sign the partnership agreement and presented it at a joint press conference with Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta.
“When we were discussing this partnership, we assessed our capacity to receive migrants and we know that we have the capacity in a place to receive migrants but we are also investing in infrastructure going forward,” Biruta said.
Opposition lawmakers said Johnson was trying to distract from the renewed calls on him to resign after being fined by police on Tuesday for attending a gathering for his birthday in June 2020 when social mixing was all but banned under COVID-19 rules his government had introduced.
Last year, more than 28,000 migrants and refugees made the crossing from mainland Europe to Britain. The arrival of migrants on rickety boats has been a source of tension between France and Britain, especially after 27 migrants drowned when their dinghy deflated in November.
“Before Christmas, 27 people drowned, and in the weeks ahead there may be many more losing their lives at sea, and whose bodies may never be recovered,” Johnson said.
“Around 600 came across the Channel yesterday. In just a few weeks this could again reach a thousand a day.”
In criticising the plan, the Labour party’s Cooper cited the cost of Australia’s policy of holding asylum-seekers in offshore camps, saying Australia Refugee Council figures showed it had cost the equivalent of 1.7 million pounds per person.
The head of a refugee advocacy group said the plan flew in the face of the principle of granting asylum seekers a fair hearing on British soil.
“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.
($1 = 0.7617 pounds)