How many asylum seekers can the government’s Rwanda scheme take?

21 December 2023
What was claimed

The Court of Appeal made it clear the government’s Rwanda scheme only has room for 100 people.

Our verdict

This figure appears to be out of date, and refer to the scheme’s initial capacity rather than the total number it may take. Exact capacity figures remain unclear, however. The court did say there was evidence Rwanda had capacity to house only 100 asylum seekers, but the government says this has since increased. It also says the scheme’s eventual capacity is uncapped.

The Court of Appeal earlier this year was very clear, there’s only room for 100 people on this Rwanda scheme.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda had, “at the very most”, room for 100 people. 

Speaking about Labour’s own plans to tackle small boat crossings by increasing enforcement against the smuggling gangs, Mr Starmer said [starts at 2:16:50]: “I would much rather our Prime Minister was spending the political capital on breaking the gangs in the first place than wasting political capital on a gimmick that is Rwanda, which at the very most, the Court of Appeal earlier this year was very clear, there's only room for 100 people on this Rwanda scheme.”

The Labour party leader made similar comments at Prime Minister’s Questions on 6 December, when he said: “When the Government first announced this gimmick, they claimed Rwanda would settle tens of thousands of people—tens of thousands of people. Then the former Deputy Prime Minister quickly whittled it down to mere hundreds. Then the Court of Appeal in June made it clear there is housing for just 100.”

Mr Starmer’s figure was one of several quoted recently in relation to the scheme’s capacity. 

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting suggested on the BBC’s Politics Live show [starts at 1.29] that the scheme if successful would send “100 people a year”. SNP MP Tommy Sheppard told Parliament the scheme had “perhaps 100 or 200 places”. Labour MP Clive Efford said the scheme will offer “only 100 or 200 places per year”, while on the Today programme [starts at 1:42:03], Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the scheme was likely to apply to “just a few hundred people”.

We’ve asked Mr Starmer about the evidence behind his claim, and haven’t had any response. He was correct to say a judgment published by the Court of Appeal in June 2023 referred to evidence that the hostel in Rwanda where asylum seekers would initially be sent had room for just 100 people. But this figure now appears to be out of date—the government says capacity has since increased, though it hasn’t given precise figures.

The 100 figure in the Court of Appeal judgment also appears to be an estimate of the Rwanda scheme’s initial capacity rather than the total number of asylum seekers it may take over time. The government says there’s no overall cap on the number of asylum seekers who may eventually be relocated to Rwanda, but hasn’t specified how many it expects to relocate each year.

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What is the Rwanda scheme?

Under a five-year trial, first announced in April 2022 and dependent on the appropriate legislation being passed, some people entering the UK illegally would be sent to Rwanda for their asylum claim to be processed. On arrival in Rwanda, they could be granted refugee status and allowed to stay. If not, they could apply to settle there on other grounds, or seek asylum in another “safe third country”.

The scheme is intended to serve as a deterrent to those attempting to cross the Channel in small boats.

However no asylum seekers have been sent to Rwanda yet due to legal challenges. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s policy was unlawful—in response, the government has introduced new legislation to try and enable the policy to go ahead.   

Where does the 100 figure come from?

The June 2023 Court of Appeal ruling referred to by Mr Starmer says that “the evidence before the Divisional Court [which previously considered the matter] was that the physical capacity for housing asylum seekers in Rwanda was limited to 100”. The judgment later adds: “Those removed will arrive at Kigali and be accommodated at the Hope Hostel where they will be free to come and go. That has a capacity of 100.”

However, the judgment goes on to note: “The evidence describes plans for further [housing] sites to be identified”. And the government has recently said that the 100 figure is no longer up to date. 

Asked about the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the House of Lords, Conservative minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom stated on 8 December: “The Court of Appeal said there was evidence of only 100 places in the initial accommodation. Its assessment was based on evidence up to the summer of 2022. Since then, additional capacity has been added, but the exact number is immaterial because the scheme is uncapped... Capacity will continue to be added as required. When claims are settled, people will move out of the accommodation.”

Although it’s unclear exactly when capacity was added, it may have been some time ago. In a written answer to a parliamentary question more than a year ago, on 6 December 2022, then-immigration minister Robert Jenrick said that Rwanda had made “initial provision to receive 200 people”.

A Home Office source said last week that Rwanda had done significant work to increase capacity since the summer of 2022 and that the first accommodation site, Hope Hostel, has a capacity of up to 200. It’s understood other sites have also been identified and can be brought online quickly to provide other reception accommodation.

Overall capacity

The figures above relate to the initial capacity of the scheme, rather than the total number of asylum seekers it may end up taking over time.

Neither the initial Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Rwanda nor the updated treaty specify a number of asylum seekers that will be sent there, saying only that the scheme will take “into account Rwanda’s capacity to receive them”.

A BBC report in April 2022, when the Rwanda policy was first announced, suggested that there was then accommodation for about 100 people at a time under the scheme, and that this would allow the scheme to process up to 500 claimants per year. 

The government has said that the Rwanda scheme is “uncapped”, and that “Rwanda has the capacity to resettle many thousands of people, and can quickly provide accommodation once flights begin”. A Home Office source said migrants would only be accommodated in facilities such as Hope Hostel as a temporary measure before being moved into regular housing for the long term, and the Rwanda government has identified a range of other sites and private housing in Kigali for permanent accommodation which is sufficient to support several thousand people.

A spokesperson for the Rwandan Government told the BBC’s World at One [9.07] programme on 16 November: “We are ready, and willing, to take in as many as the UK will be able to send.”

However there have also been indications that the overall number of asylum seekers who will be sent to Rwanda may, in practice, be limited. Then-deputy prime minister Dominic Raab indicated as early as May 2022 that the figure was likely to be “hundreds” rather than thousands a year, while the government told the Supreme Court in October 2023 that Rwanda would take only “small numbers” of asylum seekers initially. 

Home secretary James Cleverly appeared before the International Agreements Committee of the House of Lords on 19 December and was specifically asked how many migrants Rwanda had the capacity to receive. 

He indicated the numbers would be low to start with as the government wanted to ensure “the initial tranche is a figure which is manageable to the Rwandans”. He said because the scheme is intended to be a deterrent, capacity would slowly increase, peak and then decline as the deterrent effect kicks in, adding: “It may well be that there’s a bell curve.”

Mr Cleverly did not provide any figures, but said: "There is no inherent upper limit on the totality. The flow rate will be determined by the practicalities of the initial accommodation and the speed with which they can do the legal processes.”

Peter Walsh, a researcher at the independent Migration Observatory, told Full Fact it would be “definitely incorrect” to suggest that the total capacity of the scheme was 100. But Mr Walsh said he is not aware of reliable up-to-date figures and it would depend on “how much capacity-building Rwanda has done and will do”, with numbers likely to be “low and limited” initially.

Image courtesy of Aboodi Vesakaran

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After we published this fact check, we contacted Keir Starmer to make him aware of this fact check. We also contacted Yvette Cooper after she repeated the claim.

They did not respond.

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