Ukrainian refugees face being sent to Rwanda if they travel to the UK without authorisation, Boris Johnson has said in an escalation of government plans to deport those who travel across the Channel seeking sanctuary.
During a visit to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, the prime minister also urged Nato and G7 countries not to settle for a “bad peace” in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, saying it would lead to escalation by Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
But asked at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) whether Ukrainians arriving by boat could face deportation to east Africa, he said: “The only circumstances in which people will be sent to Rwanda would be if they come to the UK illegally, and thereby undermine the safe and legal routes that we have. I think we are giving 130,000 visas to Ukrainians and they have at least two very good routes for coming to this country.
“But if you come here illegally, you’re undermining all those who come here legally. And it’s crazy. So I’m afraid the answer is I suppose, yes, in theory that could happen. But I think it’s very unlikely.”
Johnson’s remarks came as:
Politicians from 11 European countries condemned the Rwanda-UK scheme. But it emerged that Johnson did not raise human rights abuses when he met the country’s president, Paul Kagame, on Thursday, despite previous indications that he would.
Ahead of a meeting with Prince Charles on Friday, Johnson was bullish in saying he would defend the policy after the heir to the throne reportedly called it “appalling” – but Downing Street and Clarence House sources suggested the subject would not be raised. Later press reports said that the prime minister wanted the royal to keep an “open mind” about the policy.
The Rwandan government confirmed it has already received £120m from the UK government to house asylum seekers who have yet to arrive, and has spent a proportion of the money.
The prime minister pledged £372m in aid to provide help for countries grappling with soaring food prices.
Critics of the government’s response to the war in Ukraine have pointed out that the UK takes in fewer Ukrainians per capita than most of Europe.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “In stark contrast to the British public who have opened their doors to welcome Ukrainians in desperate search of safety, our prime minister has confirmed that the government is intent on treating them as human cargo to be transported from the UK to Rwanda.”
In comments delivered days before he is due to join G7 leaders in Germany, and then on to Nato in Spain, Johnson also warned that “Ukraine fatigue” may have set into some of the major western powers.
“My message to colleagues at the G7 and at Nato in particular is going to be ‘now is not the time to settle and encourage the Ukrainians to settle for a bad peace, for a peace for which they are invited to give up chunks of their territory in return for a ceasefire. I think that would be a disaster. It would be a trigger for further escalation by Putin whenever he wanted,” he said.
The government in Kigali confirmed it has begun spending the £120m downpayment on the asylum scheme, which was signed off as part of a joint agreement in April.
Rwanda government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said: “Because that was intended to prepare for all the accommodations and all the other institutions to beef up the processes – so that’s been done.”
Pressed whether any of it had already been spent, she said: “Part of it because we needed to get ready and we were ready to receive the first migrants on the 14th.”
Johnson promised to begin sending thousands of asylum seekers 4,000 miles away in May following deepening concern over the growing number of small boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel.
Earlier this month, the inaugural flight was abandoned after a dramatic 11th-hour ruling by the European court of human rights (ECHR).
Amid claims that Charles could raise the migrant policy at their meeting, Johnson was bullish when asked how he would respond. During an interview with broadcasters at a school in Kigali, the prime minister said: “People need to keep an open mind about the policy, the critics need to keep an open mind about the policy. A lot of people can see its obvious merits. So yeah, of course, if I am seeing the prince tomorrow, I am going to be making that point.”
Hours later, both Downing Street and Clarence House played down the possibility of a clash. Sources from both sides said they would not raise the subject when they meet.
Members of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, from countries including Armenia, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy and Turkey lined up to condemn the UK for its conduct over Rwanda on Thursday.
Germany’s Frank Schwabe said: “Rwanda cannot be a partner for any kind of migration agreement. It is very troubling that the UK is prepared to damage respect for [the ECHR) because of a single decision it doesn’t like. The bill [of rights] will create an acceptable class of human rights abuses.”
He added: “You are part of questioning and ultimately destroying this organisation and its values. Leave it alone.”