“We need to get the flights off the ground, and that’s when we will see the deterrent effect kick in” 

That was the claim from the minister for illegal migration, Michael Tomlinson this morning on BBC Breakfast.

He was talking about the Rwanda scheme, which ministers say will put people off crossing the English Channel in small boats. Yesterday, the Prime Minister described the policy as an “indispensable deterrent”.

Let’s take a look.

What is the Rwanda scheme?

The government wants to send people who reach the UK in a small boat to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed there instead of in this country.

The idea is that if prospective travellers know they could be sent to the southern African nation, they’ll be less likely to risk crossing the Channel in the first place.

The proposal was first mooted in 2022, but no flights have ever taken off as they’ve been thwarted by legal challenges – including a November Supreme Court ruling, which declared the scheme “unlawful”.

That’s why the government has just passed the Safety of Rwanda bill. The new law aims to close off some of the legal options that were previously available to asylum seekers trying to stop the government sending them to Rwanda.

Will the Rwanda policy ‘stop the boats’?

But despite the illegal migration minister’s claim today – and the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday – the Home Office admits that it doesn’t yet know whether the Rwanda scheme will reduce the number of boat crossings.

The department’s impact assessment – which estimates the costs and benefits of the proposal – says it’s a “novel and untested scheme, and it is therefore uncertain what level of deterrence impact it will have”.

The same report highlights “the academic consensus” that “there is little to no evidence suggesting changes in a destination country’s policies have an impact on deterring people from leaving their countries of origin or travelling without valid permission”.

And it even undermines a case study that ministers have been keen to point to: Australia.

In the 2000s and 2010s, the Australian government introduced “offshoring asylum processing”, in which people arriving on small boats were sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru while their cases were decided.

This policy shares some key features with the UK’s Rwanda scheme, and ministers in this country have been keen to highlight the decline in Australian small boat arrivals as evidence that a similar approach will work here.

But the Home Office concedes in its impact assessment that the drop in Australian small boats could easily have been caused by one or more of the other policies introduced at the same time. Officials wrote: “it is difficult to disentangle the impacts of the individual measures, as well as their full applicability in the UK context”.

This chimes with previous FactCheck reporting in 2022. We found that it was the “turnback and takeback” scheme, where the Australian military escorted boats out of national waters, that was more closely associated with a drop in boat arrivals – not the offshore processing of asylum claims that is analogous to the UK-Rwanda scheme.

And it’s not just the impact assessment. The most senior Home Office civil servant, Sir Matthew Rycroft, told MPs in December that “we don’t have evidence of a deterrent effect” in relation to Rwanda.

He told the Public Accounts Committee: “We do not yet have the evidence that there is a deterrent effect from Rwanda, and it would be surprising if we did, given that it is not yet operational. As and when it is operational, it will be possible to make a judgement about, first of all, how many fewer people are crossing the Channel in small boats and how much of that reduction is down to the Rwanda policy as opposed to the other parts of the Government’s response to the challenge.”

And he even raised the possibility that the Rwanda scheme might not put off anyone at all. “There will be value for money if and only if there is a deterrent effect”, he said.

A Home Office spokesperson told FactCheck: “We are committed to building upon successful schemes with proven deterrence effects, such as our removals agreement with Albania, which reduced Albanian small boat arrivals by over 90 percent in 2023. Our Rwanda scheme echoes the same message: if you are here illegally, you will not be allowed to stay.”

FactCheck verdict

The Prime Minister and the illegal migration minister have both claimed the Rwanda policy will deter people from crossing the Channel in small boats.

But the Home Office’s own impact assessment admits the evidence for this is “uncertain”. And the most senior civil servant in charge of the department has told MPs that we’ll only know if it puts people off making the perilous journey once the scheme is up and running. He even raised the possibility that the Rwanda scheme might not deter anyone at all.


(Photo by JASON ALDEN/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)