New findings by Byline Times amplify concerns about the controversial policy’s intended effectiveness and its role in the Conservative ‘culture war’

The Home Office spent no money on publicising or promoting its controversial Rwanda scheme to those planning to come to the UK between its announcement and the first scheduled deportation flight – despite the policy’s intention to act as a deterrent to illegal asylum seekers, Byline Times can reveal.

The Government’s Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda was announced in April and came into effect in June – though deportations have been blocked in the courts due to the policy’s breach of human rights. 

The Home Secretary has repeatedly said that the agreement will “deter dangerous and illegal journeys to the UK”. But her department will spend just 0.08% of the £120 million budget for the project – £100,000 – on publicising the policy abroad until at least next April, this newspaper has found. 

Under the scheme, some asylum seekers who make unjustified “dangerous or illegal journeys” – such as by small boat or in lorries – will be sent to have their asylum claims processed in Rwanda, where they can then reside in “one of the fastest-growing economies, recognised globally for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants”, according to the Home Office. 

In a Freedom of Information response obtained by Byline Times, the Home Office said that a publicity programme began in June – two months after the policy’s announcement – adding that “this campaign is currently running in France and Belgium, and final incurred spend will be made public in due course through transparency data releases”.

It said that “spend on this campaign… is estimated to be up to £100,000” and “there is no spend formally forecasted for further advertising/communications activity outside the UK on the Migration and Economic Development Partnership in the remaining 2022/23 financial year”.

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The Home Office added that a “possible budget” of up to £315,000 has been identified that could be drawn on for an extension of the campaign. However, the value “in no way” represents the amount the campaign could actually spend as it is a budget for the whole department.

It added: “Any spend remains subject to a number of approvals processes before being committed, including by ministers, as well as consideration of other pressures.”

A number of human rights concerns have been raised about the Rwanda scheme, including the risks to LGBT+ asylum seekers and pregnant women, as this newspaper has reported.

In June, a UN human rights expert urged the UK to halt its plans and suggested that the policy violates international law – as well as risking causing irreparable harm to people seeking international protection.

Siobhán Mullally, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, said: “There are serious risks that the international law principle of non-refoulement will be breached by forcibly transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda. People seeking international protection, fleeing conflict and persecution, have the right to seek and enjoy asylum – a fundamental tenet of international human rights and refugee law.”

A judgment by the European Court of Human Rights grounded the first flight due to transfer a small group of asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, and the policy has met with fierce opposition from human rights groups. 

Last month, a cross-party group of MPs found that there was “no clear evidence” that the scheme would stop risky Channel crossings. At the time, Labour MP Diana Johnson, chair of Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, said the plan “appears to have gone unnoticed” by migrants and people smugglers. 

The Home Office has an £18 billion annual budget, including at least £1.1 billion spent on homeland security – plus an additional £217 million for day-to-day migration and border operations. Millions more are earmarked for investment in migration and border projects.  

Andy Barr, CEO and co-founder of social media and PR agency 10 Yetis, told Byline Times that the money being spent on publicising the scheme abroad amounted to “Operation: Token Gesture” and that £100,000 is “nowhere near enough” for a comprehensive, all-encompassing advertising schedule.

“We only need to look back at the COVID-19 ad spend – which was purely domestic – coming in at a seismic £180 million in 2020 alone,” he said. “While we know that advertising budgets go much further in the majority of overseas markets, £100,000 will realistically give very little reach and penetration of the message they are trying to convey to what is largely a very different market.”

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Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said that “all money spent on this dismal plan is money wasted because it doesn’t address the needs of people who, in the absence of any alternative to exercise their right to seek asylum, are compelled to risk their lives on these journeys in the hands of organised crime”.  

Migrant rights campaigner Ana Oppenheim said that, since the Rwanda scheme was announced, the number of people trying to cross the Channel has actually increased – which shows that the scheme won’t work. “The question shouldn’t be how we deter asylum seekers with more and more cruel threats,” she told Byline Times. “It’s how we make those dangerous journeys unnecessary by opening safe routes for people seeking sanctuary.”

For Clare Moseley, founder of refugee charity Care4Calais, “no amount of publicly-funded PR will make this policy work” because “the reality is that the Government has shut-off official routes for refugees to claim asylum in the UK, driving people into the hands of people smugglers and delivering record-high numbers of small boats crossing the Channel”.

“The Rwanda policy is not a deterrent,” she added. “It is a brutal way to punish innocent people seeking our help which plays well with the Conservative Party’s base.”

Both Conservative leadership candidates have committed to retaining the Rwanda scheme, with frontrunner Liz Truss pledging to expand it.

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “Evil criminal gangs are putting profit over people by facilitating dangerous and illegal small boat crossings. We have a duty to warn people of the risks of these journeys, and expose the lies sold to vulnerable people by inhumane smugglers.

“It is essential people have accurate information when considering life-threatening attempts to cross the Channel and know there are safe alternatives. The message of the campaign is clear: do not put your life in the hands of dangerous criminals.”

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