Prince Charles “remains politically neutral” — that is the official line his office, Clarence House, wants to underscore as he presides over the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Rwanda this week.
However, the future king’s views about his own government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda risk overshadowing the summit.
Prince Charles is reportedly “more than disappointed” by the idea, which was partially inspired by Australia’s offshore processing policy.
The Times newspaper said the prince had privately labelled the plan “appalling”.
While Clarence House refused to comment on his private conversations last week, it tried to play down any suggestion the Prince of Wales would use the summit to exert political influence.
The 73-year-old does have a history of speaking out.
In 2015, dozens of secret letters were released showing how he lobbied government ministers on environmental, health and defence issues, among others.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who has noted criticism of the plan from “slightly unexpected quarters” — is vowing to push ahead with the policy, despite a court challenge halting the first flight last week.
Mr Johnson is now planning to change the UK’s human rights laws to bypass the court’s decision.
It sets up a potentially awkward encounter for the two men as they meet in the country at the centre of the controversy.
Rwanda policy inspired by Australia
Many asylum seekers head to the UK via boat during summer when the weather is warmer.(AP: PA/Andrew Matthews)
The United Kingdom is facing a surge of asylum seekers arriving in small boats from France.
More than 10,000 have arrived since the start the year.
In December last year, 27 people drowned when their boat capsized while trying to reach Britain.
The government says people smugglers are exploiting asylum seekers, so it wants to create a disincentive, by sending some new arrivals to Rwanda for processing and resettlement.
“We have to interrupt the business model of the gangs,” Mr Johnson told cabinet last week.
The policy has been partially inspired by Australia’s immigration policies, including offshore processing and the denial of visas for any asylum seeker who arrives by boat.
Former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said the UK and others were “very interested” in the Australian model.
“There’s no doubt the British Government, the Home Office and the Home Secretary … have been very influenced by what Australia did and they’ve consulted very extensively with a number of Australians,” he told the ABC.
Mr Downer is among them. The Howard government, of which he was a senior member, implemented the “Pacific Solution”, which included transferring asylum seekers to Manus Island and Nauru.
Refugees trying to enter Australia were housed in offshore detention centres such as Nauru.(AP: Jason Oxenham)
“The circumstances in Australia, of course, are not identical, but they’re very similar and certainly the modus operandi of the people smugglers is very much the same,” he said.
Mr Downer — who is also a former high commissioner to the UK — is conducting a separate review into the UK’s Border Force for the British government.
For the Rwanda policy to be an effective deterrent, it needs to apply to more than just a handful of asylum seekers, Mr Downer said.
“It has to be comprehensive,” he said. “When the people are intercepted in the channel, they need to be taken to the airport as quickly as possible and flown straight to Rwanda.”
‘Disturbing’ to see Australian policies catch on, say refugee advocates
The UK Refugee Council says it is “appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision”.(Reuters: Henry Nicholls)
Detention Action UK campaigns manager Graeme McGregor said Australia should not be proud of its offshore-processing policy.
“It is disturbing to see Australian-style policies … exported to the UK,” he told the ABC.
Mr McGregor said the policy damaged Australia’s international reputation and should not be credited with “stopping the boats”.
In 2012, the Gillard government restarted offshore processing after a spike in boat arrivals and deaths at sea.
A year later, the first full year of operation, 300 boats arrived — the highest number in history.
However, once Tony Abbott’s government started turning boats around in 2014, just one vessel arrived.
“What prevented people from reaching Australia, unsurprisingly, was intercepting them with Australian naval destroyers and turning them back to Indonesia,” Mr McGregor said.
“[However,] when you turn people back … they are simply re-exposed to the danger of trafficking.”
Boris Johnson’s government has considered implementing Australia’s turnback policy, but decided it would be unworkable in the English channel.
Protesters have rallied outside an immigration centre near Heathrow Airport ahead of the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. (Reuters: Henry Nicholls)
“Those waters are very dangerous,” Mr Johnson said last week.
Mr Downer said the inflatable boats used by asylum seekers in the channel made them more difficult to turn around than Indonesian or Sri Lankan fishing vessels.
There’s also a lack of international waters in the English Channel, making the move difficult from a legal standpoint, he said.
“It should be an option if it’s safe,” he said. “But, typically, it’s not going to be.”
Mr McGregor said that, if the British government wanted to stop boats, it should provide more options for people to apply for protection visas from overseas, so they don’t have to turn to people smugglers.
UK government already ‘planning next Rwanda flight’
The first plane bound for Rwanda was grounded following a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.(Reuters: Henry Nicholls)
The Rwanda plan was derailed last week by the European Court of Human Rights, which intervened to stop the first flight of asylum seekers taking off.
Even before that judgement, dozens of asylum seekers had their tickets cancelled due to concerns about their mental and physical health.
However, the government says it is already planning a new flight, shrugging off its own concerns about human rights protections in Rwanda.
In 2021, the UK’s ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French, criticised the east African nation for not performing “transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations, including deaths in custody and torture”.
Senior leaders in the Church of England have described the policy as “immoral”, saying it “shames Britain”.
“Afran”, an Iranian asylum seeker who was due to be sent to Rwanda, told the ABC he didn’t understand why he had been selected, when others were allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.
“I don’t know anything about Rwanda, but I’ve heard it’s not safe,” the 24-year old told the ABC from immigration detention. And ,if it is a safe country, why don’t they send refugees from Ukraine?”
The Rwandan government says the asylum seekers will be given hotel accommodation from which they’ll be free to come and go. It says there’s “nothing immoral” about offering homes to people in need.
While the UK says it will fund all costs and put up the asylum seekers in these hostels, critics say Rwanda’s government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. (Reuters)
Rwanda will receive more than $200 million in development aid from the UK government as part of the deal.
Alexander Downer said Rwanda was a “beautiful country” that had turned itself around since its 1994 genocide.
And, he said, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was already hosting refugees in Rwanda, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi.
“If it’s good enough for the UNHCR, it’ll be good enough for the British government,” Mr Downer said.
The UNHCR opposes Britain’s plan, accusing it of “exporting” its international obligations and trading asylum seekers like “commodities”.