Foreign Office officials tried to thwart Rwanda asylum plan over ‘torture and killings’ fear

·3 min read
People thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in small boats are picked up by Border Force officials. Priti Patel wants to send Channel migrants to Rwanda, but the Foreign Office raised concerns about the country's human rights record - AP Photo/Matt Dunham
People thought to be migrants crossing the Channel in small boats are picked up by Border Force officials. Priti Patel wants to send Channel migrants to Rwanda, but the Foreign Office raised concerns about the country's human rights record - AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Foreign Office officials tried to block Priti Patel’s Rwanda asylum scheme over alleged “torture and killings”, the High Court was told.

The Foreign Office adviser questioned whether a draft government document on Rwanda’s human rights record gave an accurate representation of the country, noting cases of “arbitrary detention, torture and even killings”.

The warning came weeks before the British Government tried to send asylum seekers to the African nation. The first flight was blocked by European court judges following a successful human rights challenge.

The adviser’s note is part of a legal battle to force disclosure of documents relating to the Government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda to claim asylum there.

Migrants identified for the aborted flight and three media organisations - BBC News, including BBC Two's Newsnight, The Times and The Guardian - are seeking disclosure of the material.

The first Rwanda flight was grounded in June after the European Court of Human Rights said the High Court in London must first fully examine whether the removals policy is lawful. A hearing is scheduled for next month.

The first flight taking migrants to Rwanda was grounded, while a hearing takes place into whether the policy is lawful - Reuters/Henry Nicholls
The first flight taking migrants to Rwanda was grounded, while a hearing takes place into whether the policy is lawful - Reuters/Henry Nicholls

On Tuesday, the Government asked the High Court to rule that the case should not include 11 specific comments about Rwanda from an unnamed Foreign Office official, who had been asked for their view.

The court heard that Foreign Office bosses had asked the unnamed official, who had some expertise in African affairs, to look at a draft of the Rwanda "Country Policy and Information Note".

This is an official and public document on the country and its human rights record - and it was being updated while the Rwanda flights plan was being thrashed out.

In an email sent to colleagues on April 26, two weeks after the plan became public, the reviewer questioned the tone of the report and whether it accurately reflected the situation in the country.

High Court judge Lord Justice Lewis was told the official had written in a covering email: "There are state control, security, surveillance structures from the national level down... political opposition is not tolerated and arbitrary detention, torture and even killings are accepted methods of enforcing control too."

Jude Bunting QC, appearing for the media organisations, told the court the withheld evidence from the reviewer was likely to be the most critical material about the Rwanda affair.

"The sensitivity of this policy cannot be understated," he said. "The public needs to understand the material that was available to the [Government] at the time the decisions under challenge were taken, the evidence that is said to weigh against, as well as to justify, this flagship policy, and the reasons why the [Government] decided to proceed."

Lord Justice Lewis will rule in the coming days on whether any of the material should be kept secret.

A government spokesperson said: “Rwanda is a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers.

“We remain committed to delivering this policy to break the business model of criminal gangs and save lives.”