News | Migration / Flight - Europe Exporting the Rwanda Model

When it comes to asylum policy, Germany appears to be copying the British playbook



Andreas Bohne,

People gather at the Home Office in London to protest against the British government’s Rwanda deportation plan on International Migrants Day, 18 December 2023. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

Last week, the British Parliament voted in favour of the so-called “Rwanda Bill” introduced by Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The bill puts forward a law and approach that increasingly looks like the preferred model for German and European policymakers: namely, outsourcing asylum procedures to third countries beyond Europe’s borders in an alleged bid to slow overall migration and discourage asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey to begin with.

In April 2022, the British government under then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced it had concluded an agreement with Rwanda. As part of a five-year programme, asylum seekers were to be flown to the East African country to apply for British asylum there instead of in the UK itself. The announcement triggered strong protests, both in the UK as well as in a number of African countries, yet the first planned deportation flight was stopped not by popular protest, but by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights just minutes before the first flight was due to take off.

That ruling was upheld by the UK’s Supreme Court in November 2023, which confirmed that the plan was unlawful because the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda violated the European Convention on Human Rights, among other things. There was a risk, the court reasoned, that asylum seekers would not receive a fair hearing in Rwanda, a country that, as Sunak admits, has “issues with its human rights record”.

This ruling dealt a setback to the controversial policy. Yet, as the court did not make a final judgement on whether or not Rwanda constituted a “safe third country”, supporters saw no reason to abandon the deportation initiative entirely.

Indeed, the British government finalized a new deportation agreement with Rwanda in early December 2023, designed to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling. The “Safety of Rwanda Bill”, which was published the day after the new agreement was signed, states that Rwanda is a safe country under British law. Among other things, the new agreement provides assurances from Rwanda’s authoritarian leadership that it will not deport asylum seekers back to their home country.

From London to Berlin?

The “Rwanda model” is not only popular in the UK or Denmark, but has lately also attracted a great deal of interest among German politicians. The term itself often refers to two things: both the trend towards outsourcing asylum procedures to third countries, as promoted by the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in its 2024 European election programme, for example, and the explicit example of Rwanda as a country to which refugees should be transferred. The UK has set negative “standards” which German politicians of various stripes are eager to pick up on.

Jens Spahn, for example, an MP for the Christian Democrats and former federal health minister, cites Rwanda alongside Ghana as explicit examples of where asylum procedures could be outsourced to, and the governing coalition consisting of the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats is flirting with the approach. The Free Democrats have been aggressively pushing such a plan for months, and according to media reports, the government is currently drawing up a feasibility analysis. Even so-called “left-conservatives” like Sahra Wagenknecht do not seem averse to the idea.

Thus, the idea that these discourses are only prevalent in far-right and right-populist circles is mistaken. The discussions surrounding the Rwanda model show how deeply these ideas have become rooted in Germany’s so-called “political centre”.

Should Germany, or any other EU member-state, end up enacting such a policy, it will quickly become a point of reference for governments around the world who think that tightening immigration laws will help them get a leg up over the far right.

How could outsourcing asylum procedures to Rwanda be so popular in Germany, given the vast number of legal concerns being raised? British judges, independent lawyers, and human rights activists have repeatedly emphasized that any form of a “Rwanda Agreement” would violate the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Moreover, legal assessments make it clear that Rwanda’s asylum system has many weaknesses, including the fact that migrants are at risk of being sent back to their home countries, where they could face further violence. The political situation in Rwanda, a major recipient of German foreign aid, is also often ignored.

The appeal of the Rwanda model lies, it would appear, in the fact that it pushes the rhetorical goalposts to the right in terms of what can be said and thought in German politics. Different facts quickly get mixed up in the debate. For example, supporters claim that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) flew 2,000 refugees from Libya to Rwanda in 2019. This is true, but ignores the fact that the action was voluntary and that the UNHCR completely rejects the Rwanda model in the British sense. There is no empirical evidence that measures like the Rwanda model would have any sort of deterrent effect.

The Rwanda model also highlights the hypocrisy of European states. Whether in England or in Germany, the ostensible aim of outsourcing asylum procedures is to stop smugglers and prevent people from making the dangerous journey — whether across the English Channel or the Mediterranean. The supposed humanitarian reasons cited by European authorities are used to play refugees off against each other.

The British court’s overturning of the Rwanda Bill in the UK came at a time when, back in Germany, members of the AfD and other conservative and far-right groups were holding a meeting in Potsdam, not far from the German capital, to discuss plans for the “remigration” of migrants and people with migrant backgrounds. For observers of the right-wing scene, these ideas are nothing new. Yet the normalization of the Rwanda model can also be seen as fulfilling, or at least anticipating, far-right fantasies of mass “remigration”.

Should Germany, or any other EU member-state, end up enacting such a policy, it will quickly become a point of reference for governments around the world who think that tightening immigration laws will help them get a leg up over the far right. But if Germany’s experience is any indication, where the AfD are currently hitting record highs in the polls, the opposite is true: by adopting far-right policies, even in part, the centre ends up further normalizing and legitimizing the very forces it claims to oppose.