Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

‘Traded Like Commodities and Transferred Abroad for Processing’: Legal and Political Claims Against the UK-Rwanda Deal



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Guest post by Maayan Niezna, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Modern Slavery and Human Rights, Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, University of Oxford, and a Lecturer in Law at Kent Law School. Her research focuses on trafficking for labour exploitation and the regulation of labour migration. Maayan is on Twitter @M_Niezna.  

The new UK Rwanda Memorandum of Understanding on the ‘provision of an asylum partnership arrangement‘, or the plan to deport asylum seekers from the UK to be assessed and protected in Rwanda, drew strong criticism. In its message opposing the deal, UNHCR suggested that ‘“People fleeing war, conflict and persecution […] should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing’. Despite the clear implication, the UNHCR commentary stopped short of calling the deal trafficking in persons. Some commentators were less reserved. The UK’s intention to pay Rwanda £120 million as part of a deal concerning the forced transfer of people across border was seen as supporting such a comparison.

This post considers the legal and political context in which such claims are made. The ‘trafficking’ label has a strong emotive and political power, used both by officials aiming to strengthen border control measures and prevent undocumented movement across borders, and activists and scholars recognising the contribution of migration control measures to precarity and risk.

The first question to consider is whether the forced deportation of asylum seekers to another country amounts to trafficking. The international definition of trafficking in persons under the Trafficking Protocol (‘Palermo protocol’) includes three elements: actions (such as transfer and harbouring), means (such as coercion or deception) and purpose (such as slavery and forced labour). It is noteworthy that while the payment from the UK to Rwanda contributed to the sense of transaction in persons characterising the agreement, the definition of trafficking does not require money change hands. The forced deportation of asylum seekers reflects the first two elements, as it consists of a transfer of persons by means of coercion. However, it fails to conform with the element of purpose, as deportation is not meant to result in exploitation; it rather denotes the implementation of a restrictive migration policy. The forced deportation to Rwanda, therefore, does not amount to trafficking under international law.

The UK definition of the offence of trafficking in persons under the Modern Slavery Act (2(1)) (MSA) is slightly different from the international one, though it includes generally similar elements:

A person commits an offence if the person arranges or facilitates the travel of another person (“V”) with a view to V being exploited.’

As with the international definition, the first part clearly applies to arranging or facilitating the travel of asylum seekers to Rwanda. It is the second part, concerning exploitation, that is broader and therefore might be more relevant for such situations. The MSA explains that:

(4)A person arranges or facilitates V’s travel with a view to V being exploited only if—

(a)the person intends to exploit V (in any part of the world) during or after the travel, or

(b) the person knows or ought to know that another person is likely to exploit V (in any part of the world) during or after the travel.

I do not suggest that the UK government intends to exploit migrants after their deported to another country. But do officials know or ought to know the people transferred are likely to be exploited? This links to a second, stronger claim, that trafficking might result from the conditions after arrival to Rwanda. Here, there is great cause for concern, based on evidence from similar arrangements in the past, most notably the deportation of African asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda.

In Israel, like in the UK, various policies were adopted to create a hostile environment for asylum seekers. Israeli policies aimed to deter refugees and encourage the departure of those already in the country included prolonged detention, economic coercion through deduction from wages, and imprisonment meant to encourage ‘voluntary’ departure to third countries: Rwanda and Uganda. Evidence based on the affidavits and testimonies of asylum seekers deported from Israel to Rwanda suggests such deportation might result in trafficking and exploitation. Like the claims now made in the UK context, the Israeli plan was accompanied by promises of protection in Rwanda, access to the asylum mechanism, housing and support for vulnerable migrants. As the agreement was kept secret, and formal statements did not even disclose Rwanda as the state of destination, information regarding safeguards was hard to obtain. Nonetheless, strong evidence refuted the promises of protection and asylum. Upon arrival, asylum seekers were held in a guarded hotel they were not allowed to leave. They had their documents taken, were denied legal status, and were subject to arrests. They were not allowed to work in Rwanda. Almost all had to leave Rwanda and travel to other countries, relying on smugglers and crossing borders illegally. Many encountered abuse, exploitation and trafficking as a result of their deportation to an unsafe situation. As the UK definition of trafficking explicitly includes exploitation after travel, in any part of the world, and as states’ international obligations to prevent trafficking are not limited to their territory, such concerns cannot be dismissed. There is a real risk the UK-Rwanda deal will result in exactly the same abuse the PM and the Home secretary claim it will reduce.

The politicians’ statements reflect the use of the powerful anti-trafficking language by states to justify what otherwise might be considered too harsh control measures as means of protection, criticised within the trafficking and refugee law context. The use of the trafficking label by activists follows this powerful terminology. It emphasises the illegitimacy of the measures taken by the government, in a way that adds to the illegitimacy of violating refugee law and human rights. It might be the power of the trafficking label to frame the policy as a crime – and as such, as clearer abuse of state authority than ‘simple’ human rights violations. The fact that both support and objection to such migration control policies can be framed in reference to trafficking reflects the complex and contested political context in which trafficking claims are made. While critical and alternative approaches emphasise the role of the state, primarily through its migration and employment policies, in facilitating trafficking and exploitation, these are far from the mainstream. The dominant approach to trafficking (or ‘modern slavery’) is still an approach emphasising border control measures and criminalisation, including criminalisation of work and criminalisation of movement, and considers trafficking primarily as a threat to state sovereignty.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Niezna, M. (2022) ‘Traded Like Commodities and Transferred Abroad for Processing’: Legal and Political Claims Against the UK-Rwanda Deal. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/05/traded [date]

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