Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

Medical professionals must speak out about the inhumane forced removal of people seeking asylum

BMJ 2022; 379 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o3009 (Published 15 December 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;379:o3009
  1. Martin McKee, President
  1. British Medical Association

The mental and physical health implications of forced removal of people seeking asylum to Rwanda make the policy inhumane and unconscionable. As medical professionals we must speak out, writes Martin McKee

Six months ago the British government forced seven people seeking safety in the UK on to a plane to Rwanda. Following legal challenges, they were the only ones remaining of the 130 scheduled for deportation. As the plane readied for take off the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a 53-year old Iraqi man should be allowed to remain in the UK to conclude his ongoing legal challenge.1 This allowed for the remaining six people to be removed from the flight, that same evening. Once again, the government’s hostile policies caused chaos and harm to asylum seekers, many of whom had already suffered indescribable horrors. But ministers are undeterred. They still want to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda under the deceptively named UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership.2 And we in the BMA are saying “not in our name.” As doctors, committed to alleviating suffering, we cannot stand by while those who claim to represent us act in a way that threatens the health and dignity of our fellow human beings.

This is not the first time we have spoken out against the UK’s hostile migration policies.3 We condemned the government’s unethical use of NHS data to enforce its immigration rules even though it would deter people getting essential treatment.4 More recently we have been shocked by the accounts of children being detained at Manston, the lack of access to quality and timely healthcare and the accounts of unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions.5 We have been alarmed by reports of diphtheria and a system that allowed those suspected of being infected to be dispersed around the country without informing local public health teams.6

So why are we concerned about the Rwanda deportation policy? Its supporters argue that those deported will find a safe haven where they can rebuild their lives. But this is nonsense. One after another, the claims made for this policy have been revealed as lies. We were told that the government considered Rwanda a “fundamentally safe and secure country”7 even though its own assessment revealed serious concerns about human rights and protection of refugees.8 We were told that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) supported the scheme when they publicly condemned it.9 Others are just misleading. Thus, the statement that “People will have all their needs looked after while their asylum claims are being considered in Rwanda”10 fails to make clear that, if successful, they would have to remain in Rwanda and would not be allowed back to the UK.11 Given this record, we would be unwise to accept ministers’ reassurances. And the people seeking safety being threatened with deportation have even fewer grounds for doing so.

Even though the scheme has, so far, proved unworkable, many of those seeking asylum in the UK are terrified that they could be next. Many have already suffered severe physical and mental trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder is common. The prospect of being removed to somewhere they have no connection risks exacerbating mental health conditions. Some of those taken from the abandoned flight have self-harmed or threatened suicide12 and were put in “pain inducing” restraint as they begged not to be expelled.13 The Home Office knows that asylum seekers and those supporting them are reporting a rise in mental health problems.14 Yet this cruelty is at the heart of the policy. By continuing to press ahead ministers are adding to the significant harm this is having on people seeking sanctuary in the UK.

We are clear that the Rwanda policy is unconscionable on medical, ethical, and humanitarian grounds and we urge ministers to scrap it in favour of a fair and compassionate asylum system that ensures that the rights and humanity of refugees are acknowledged and in line with international obligations.

The BMA, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Medical Justice will be discussing these issues in a webinar this Thursday 15 December Details are at https://www.bma.org.uk/events/bma-joint-webinar-with-medical-justice-and-msf

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.

References