Ministers knew of Rwanda political killings before approving migrant plan

Ministers knew of Rwanda political killings before approving migrant plan
Government attempting to keep official’s comments secret amid legal action over policy

Ministers attempting to send asylum seekers to Rwanda were warned by a Foreign Office official that the government in Kigali used “abitrary detention, torture and even killings” to stifle political opposition, the High Court has been told.

Priti Patel’s Home Office is currently embroiled in a legal row over whether its asylum policy is lawful and – ahead of a court battle next month – foreign secretary Liz Truss has sought this week to keep certain documents relating to the government’s plans a secret.

The contested extracts relate to comments made by an unnamed Foreign Office official tasked with reviewing a public Home Office document summarising conditions in Rwanda, which was being updated at the same time as ministers were planning their controversial policy.

It emerged at the High Court on Tuesday that the official – who had some expertise on the region –reportedly raised concerns about the tone of the Home Office’s “country policy and information note” on Rwanda, and whether it accurately represented the situation in the East African nation.

In a covering email containing his comments on the new draft, sent to colleagues on 26 April – less than a fortnight after Boris Johnson announced his government’s deportation plan – the official reportedly warned of the “accepted methods of enforcing control” in Rwanda.

In an extract of the email, read out in the High Court on Tuesday, he wrote: “There are state control, security, surveillance structures from the national level down to [households]. Political opposition is not tolerated and arbitrary detention, torture and even killings are accepted methods of enforcing control too.”

The email was sent weeks before the government announced its first deportation flight, which was prevented from taking off on 14 June after a dramatic intervention from the European Court of Human Rights which blocked the government from doing so until legal challenges in the UK are settled.

This challenge over the policy’s lawfulness has been brought by a number of groups, including the PCS union (which represents some Home Office staff), and charities Care4Calais and Detention Action, alongside multiple asylum seekers identified for the grounded deportation flight.

Ahead of a High Court showdown due to last five days starting on 5 September, the government sought this week to keep 11 extracts of the Foreign Office official’s comments out of the public domain – a move contested by the union, charities and individuals bringing the legal action, in addition to multiple media organisations.

At a hearing on Tuesday, lawyers for the government argued that making the redacted extracts public posed the “potential of very significant harm” to international relations and national security.

In written submissions, Neil Sheldon QC – representing the government – said the redacted material “comprises expressions of opinion, of a general nature”, adding: “The commentary it contains amounts to nothing more or less than the un-referenced opinion of this particular individual.”

The barrister argued that the Home Office had already provided “a significant array of evidence addressing the critical views advanced by the government about the government of Rwanda”.

However, Christopher Knight, who represents the groups challenging the government, said it was important for the court to decide whether the redactions “go materially beyond or differ from the public criticisms made” about the Rwandan government by the UK – and read the extract regarding torture and killings to the court.

The government is claiming public interest immunity on the extracts – a move backed by Foreign Office minister Graham Stuart, who said in written evidence that disclosing the full documents would cause serious harm “primarily but not exclusively” to the UK’s relationship with the Rwandan government.

The minister said that sharing the extracts would also harm national security “in light of Rwanda’s status as a valuable strategic partner to the United Kingdom across a range of issues including regional security, the maintenance of a strong coalition in support of Ukraine and combating the activities of criminal gangs engaged in illegal immigration”.

But Mr Knight argued it was “implausible” for the redactions to contain anything that could harm national security related to supporting Ukraine.

Lord Justice Lewis said he hoped to give a judgment on the Home Office’s bid by Wednesday afternoon.

At a hearing last month, court documents showed that Rwanda was “initially excluded from the shortlist of potential partner countries for [Ms Patel’s] proposed immigration policy on human rights grounds”.

They also showed that the UK high commissioner to Rwanda warned last February that the country “should not be pursued as an option for the planned migration policy”, in part because the nation had “been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.

Additional reporting by PA