'Bury me in Britain': How the UK-Rwanda deportation deal shatters the mental health of migrants in Calais

Calais migrants
8 min read
10 June, 2022

“If they destroy my dream to reach Britain, that’s it. I have nothing else to dream for,” says Muhammad Ismail*, a young migrant in his twenties, sitting on the edge of an improvised football field on the outskirts of Calais.

Muhammad Ismail hails from Sudan, like many of the 2,000 migrants thought to be currently stranded on the northern French coast, waiting for an opportunity to cross the sea to Britain.

"On April 14, the United Kingdom signed a deal to deport those who arrived illegally to Rwanda, which would process their asylum claims"

He reached Calais in the bitter January cold, pitched a tent on the muddy soil of a makeshift camp, and endured the police’s recurrent early morning evictions.

But standing on the beach on a clear day, he could, at last, make out the white cliffs of Dover on the horizon, and feel within reach of a dream that had cost him months of suffering.

HMC Searcher, one of the cutter ships operated by the Border Force, collected asylum seekers in the English Channel and is returning to Dover with them safely on board [Getty]

Months later, Muhammad Ismail’s hopes were abruptly doused. On April 14, the United Kingdom signed a deal to deport those who arrived illegally after January 1, 2022 (subsequently reported to May 9) to Rwanda, which would process their asylum claims. In exchange, the UK committed to investing £120 million ($157 million) in the small East African nation.

Across Calais’ informal camps, the news spread like fire, sowing despair and crushing anxiety that, activists warn, impact the mental well-being of asylum-seekers – with potentially tragic consequences.

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A ‘cruel’ deal

The deal was widely decried as “cruel” and “inhumane” by human rights watchdogs and humanitarian organisations. The overwhelming majority of those at risk of deportation have no ties whatsoever to Rwanda – most hail from Sudan, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

"How can someone who came all the way from Africa be returned to Africa?”

Having fled war and persecution at home, many are traumatised by the prospect of living once more under a repressive regime where arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and torture in prison have been documented by human rights watchdogs.

LGBTQ+ asylum seekers could face particular discrimination and violence in Rwanda, according to a UK Home Office internal report.

A number of people wait for a bus in Calais, north of France to go back to their makeshift camps after a failed crossing attempt [Getty]

“How can someone who came all the way from Africa be returned to Africa?” Mohammed Saleh*, a Sudanese youth in Calais for eight months, told The New Arab. “For us, Rwanda and Sudan are the same thing.”

Under the new deportation scheme, those granted asylum by Rwanda – the most densely populated country in Africa – are expected to remain there.

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Others most likely face deportation to their country of origin, at the discretion of Rwandan authorities. But historic precedents tell another story.

Rwanda was previously involved in a similarly controversial deportation scheme with Israel, which sent thousands of asylum-seekers there between 2014 and 2017. Most reportedly left immediately, heading for Europe instead. 

Psychological warfare

“I call this law ‘psychological warfare' against people in exile,” Omer*, an interpreter and cultural mediator in a large charity helping people in exile in Calais, told The New Arab.

A Sudanese refugee himself, Omer has lived in multiple host countries before settling in France. For him, the UK move adds to the long list of psychological traumas faced by people in exile.

“Most people here in Calais, or in other places – those who are still trapped in Libya, in Africa, at the French-Italian border – have endured a lot of violence,” Omer adds, in perfect French. “They fled a war, only to face another kind of war.”

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Some left Sudan as children and spent years without seeing a member of their family. Most are exposed to physical and sexual violence at some point in their journey. Nearly all those who cross through Libya are kidnapped and tortured. And to top all this, asylum-seekers must muster the courage to relive these traumas as they tell their story to various government services.

"The fear of the unknown has really caused them a lot of anxiety”

Already, the UK-Rwanda scheme has taken a toll in Calais. “We definitely noticed a lot of uncertainty and fear, understandably, about what is going to happen,” Rachel Park, a volunteer with Refugee Infobus – a charity providing phone charging and information services – told The New Arab.

Other volunteers told The New Arab they face a surge of questions about the deal. Some shared stories of friends who had crossed to the UK after May 9 and were now haunted by the terror of being sent to Rwanda. “There have been several guys that I’ve spoken to who have just said, you know, they are struggling to sleep at night,” Rachel added. “The fear of the unknown has really caused them a lot of anxiety.”

Destroying lives

In Calais, mental health issues are compounded by the difficulty to access care. Often, mental health needs are overshadowed by pressing concerns about day-to-day survival and are sometimes seen as taboo. There is no dedicated mental health organisation for migrants, who often face language and trust barriers when trying to seek care in French hospitals.

In this context, Doctors Across Borders (MSF) accused the UK government of “destroying lives,” based on their experience treating asylum seekers forcibly removed from Australia to detention centres on Nauru island.

Two people carry a shopping cart loaded with firewood at the informal camp in near Dunkirk, France as cold temperatures saw many suffer over winter [Getty]

Of the detainees treated by MSF in the Nauru centres, the NGO said, 60 percent experienced suicidal thoughts, including children as young as nine, and 30 percent had already tried to take their own life.

Already, several suicide attempts have been recorded in the UK among those who fear being targeted by the scheme. And on May 11, Hassan, a young Sudanese man, took his own life inside an abandoned truck in Calais – a tragedy that rocked the migrant community and was widely perceived as a consequence of migration policies.

"60% experienced suicidal thoughts, including children as young as nine, and 30% had already tried to take their own life"

Hassan’s asylum claim had been rejected in three European countries. His friends reportedly told charity workers he “no longer wanted to live” after the deal was announced.


Endless uncertainty

Compounding the anxiety rising among migrants in Calais is the unending uncertainty about how the deal will be applied.

“People are asking if they cross to the UK, will they be sent straight back to Rwanda?” Rachel said. “What we’re having to tell them at the moment is that because this is a new law, we don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. There’s the law that is written, and then the law that will happen in practice.”

Part of Omer’s role is to run legal information sessions. Questions on the UK-Rwanda deal have skyrocketed in the past few weeks. “The most asked questions today are: will women face deportation, alone or with their family? Will unaccompanied minors be deported? People who already have family in the UK, will they be deported? Normally not, but nothing is for sure,” Omer sighed.

"The most asked questions today are: will women face deportation, alone or with their family? Will unaccompanied minors be deported?"

The UK government’s announcement seems to have destabilised some people, who may consider postponing their crossing but will not deter most given the lack of alternatives.

According to the Dublin regulation, which governs asylum processes within the European Union, migrants must request asylum in the first EU country in which they arrive – often, Italy or Greece. Many of the migrants in Calais had their fingerprints forcibly taken there, and risk being sent back if they apply for asylum in France.

“Going back to Italy is not an option. My family contracted huge debts to pay for my release from Libyan prisons, they sold everything they have,” a Syrian man told The New Arab. He is desperate to reach the UK because of existing solidarity networks, work opportunities and better wages.

Fifteen-month-old Liva, and her Iraqi father Honer, sit around a campfire at the informal camp in Grande-Synthe [Getty]

Renewed resolve

Dozens of people, including Sudanese, Syrian and Afghan refugees, have already received letters notifying them that the UK intended to deport them to Rwanda. The first deportation flight is due to take place on June 14.

But despite the terror of being sent back to Rwanda, a few hundred miles from his starting point, Muhammad Ismail stands undeterred: “I am not scared. We will make it.”

Likewise, Mohammed feels he has suffered too much to give up now. “I am not scared of anything:  I spent three years in Libya, one of them in prison. And I crossed the Mediterranean after six attempts, something which was very difficult.”

"If they send me to Rwanda, I think I will die... I will tell them to kill me in Britain and bury me in Britain, but I will not go to Rwanda"

Hundreds of migrants have crossed to the UK by boat in May, clinging to the hope that the deal will be brought down in court. Several NGOs, including Care4Calais and Freedom from Torture, have filed legal cases against the UK-Rwanda schemes.

In the meantime, mounting psychological pressure is threatening to destroy lives. “If they send me to Rwanda, I think I will die,” Muhammad Ismail said. “I will tell them to kill me in Britain and bury me in Britain, but I will not go to Rwanda.”

(*These interviewees requested a pseudonym to protect their privacy)

Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.

Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais