FOLKESTONE, England — Almost every day, Kamal Mohamad calls his parents in Iraq from the converted military barracks on the outskirts of Folkestone, a coastal town in Kent, south-east England, where he awaits a decision on his asylum application.
But when he spoke to his parents two weeks ago, they were inconsolable.
“My father called me, he was crying,” said 24-year-old Mr Mohamad. “He was so afraid that the government would send me to Rwanda, but I told him, don’t worry.”
The British government’s announcement last month of a controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to the African country has caused confusion and concern among many, such as Mr Mohamad, who arrived here on small boats crossing the English Channel, or on other unauthorized manner.
It is still unclear who the policy would affect or how the government would implement its plan. Asylum seekers, many of whom fled war zones and then endured perilous journeys to reach Britain, say the ambiguity is an additional burden weighing heavily on them.
Aid groups supporting asylum seekers, which are scattered across Britain in hostels, hotels and other temporary housing, emphasized that the new policies had increased uncertainty for people already in precarious situations. And even many local residents of Kent, where small boats carrying migrants often arrive after crossing the English Channel, say the plan seems unfair.
Mr Mohamad, who is Kurdish, arrived in England last year aboard an overcrowded dinghy. He is one of approximately 320 asylum seekers currently housed in the former Napier Barracks in Folkestone.
“I had no other options,” said Mr Mohamad of his flight from Iraq. “We have so many problems in my country. We just came to stay alive.”
Having arrived earlier this year, Mr Mohamad said he thought the new policy was unlikely to apply to him. But despite his reassurances to his father, he admitted he was concerned. And he said many newcomers were very concerned about being sent to Rwanda.
Katie Sweetingham, 39, the emergency response team leader for Care4Calais, a relief group that supports refugees, said her organization had received dozens of frantic messages since the government’s plan was announced.
“They don’t know what their future holds yet, but then you have that horrible thing hanging over you,” she said. “I think it’s just another thing to traumatize people.”
Ms Sweetingham and 21 other volunteers monitor boat arrivals along the Kent coastline, greeting and offering hot drinks to people coming ashore. Care4Calais also provides support to people living in Napier Barracks and other temporary housing.
“These are vulnerable people and they pose no threat,” Ms Sweetingham said of the migrants.
In a statement, the interior ministry said the partnership with Rwanda would “review our broken asylum system”, adding: “There is nothing in the UN Refugee Convention that prevents removal to a safe country.”
But international human rights experts and groups representing asylum seekers say the measures are indeed illegal, denouncing the 1951 Refugee Convention and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
So far, the UK’s plan has given little detail, but it says anyone who “comes into the UK illegally or by dangerous or unnecessary methods” — including by small boat — since early this year will be eligible to move to Rwanda.
The proposal has sparked backlash from opposition lawmakers, and even from some in the ruling Conservative Party. It has also reportedly caused a stir within the interior ministry and protests from senior officials. Opponents say the policy would not have the intended deterrent effect and could be costly for taxpayers.
Human rights groups say the plan is being used to score political points at a time when Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure.
The policy is about the visibility of the migrants arriving by boat “and the political capital to be built from that visibility,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty UK’s refugee and migrant rights program director.
“All that is going to happen is that a relatively small number of desperately unhappy people will be randomly picked to be expelled from this country to Rwanda, and thank goodness knows what can happen to them,” he added.
Asylum seekers make up a small proportion of those who migrate to Britain, and almost everyone arriving by small boat applies for asylum. In 2021, almost two-thirds of all asylum applications turned out to be genuine refugees.
Although the number of boat crossings has increased over the past two years, asylum applications are still significantly lower than a peak of 20 years ago. Migration experts say that’s likely due to a shift in routes. Nevertheless, the boat arrivals have become a focus of attention for the Conservative government.
The government backtracked on one immigration measure last Monday and withdrew its permission to return boats — a policy last fall that never really materialized.
That move came after a legal challenge by several groups, including a union representing border officials charged with implementing the policy. Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, who was also involved in the lawsuit, said efforts are now underway to challenge Rwanda’s policy, which she called “another staggeringly expensive exercise while we should be helping people”.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, about 20 young men living in a hostel in London gathered in the basement of a church for games, snacks and English lessons organized by Care4Calais.
Most had fled war, political oppression or persecution. They came from Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Syria, among others. Some had come by boat. Some were smuggled into the back of trucks from Europe. Others arrived by plane with false documents.
At a table, a volunteer explained Uno’s rules. In another group, four men gathered around a game of Jenga, who burst out laughing as the wooden blocks toppled over.
One man at the rally, Medhi, 31, an Iranian who asked to use only his first name due to security concerns, described arriving in Britain by plane three months ago after fleeing persecution from his family for converting to Islam. Christianity.
Medhi shared a photo of his back showing serious wounds from the eyelashes he believed his father had inflicted. Medhi said he was afraid the government would send him to Rwanda or back home.
“I fear that decision,” he said of the possibility of being sent to Rwanda. “I want to stay here.”
Many local residents in Kent, even some whose perspectives leaned toward anti-immigrant sentiments, said Rwanda’s policies were not a good fit for them.
“I don’t agree that they come here illegally”† but once they get here the least we can do is help if we can,” said Kerrie Heath, 33, who was shopping in Folkestone. “They’re just trying to get somewhere where they can improve their lives.”
Many adult asylum seekers spend months or years in temporary housing without the legal opportunity to work or attend school while their applications and potential appeals are processed.
Marc Elsdon, 41, a military veteran who had a drink with his girlfriend in the refurbished Folkestone harbor area, said he was ashamed of Rwanda’s policies.
“We are open to anyone trying to start a new life,” he said, noting that many of the migrants were fleeing war. “I’m sure if it happened here, we’d go to another country for help.”
About 15 minutes from shore, volunteers from the local charity Napier Friends recently spoke in the afternoon sun with a group of asylum seekers from the converted barracks, who were helping to plant a community garden.
Among a group that was clearing ground was Zana, 28, from Iraqi Kurdistan. He also asked not to use his last name for security reasons. Zana worked as an English teacher and translator for the coalition forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
“My life was in danger there,” he said, describing being attacked for his work with the coalition. He tried to apply for a resettlement visa, but it proved “impossible,” he said, so he arranged for him to be smuggled across Europe in a lorry and then smuggled to England by boat seven months ago.
Now, he says, he feels abandoned by the countries he has helped for years.
“I had a great life there, but I had to leave it,” he said of Iraq. “I expected much better here.”