Jewish leaders condemn Rwanda asylum plan

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Jewish leaders condemn Rwanda asylum plan

In an open letter to The Guardian, senior figures called the proposal "inhumane" and "cruel".

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Home Secretary Priti Patel signs agreement with the East African nation of Rwanda (Twitter)
Home Secretary Priti Patel signs agreement with the East African nation of Rwanda (Twitter)

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s controversial proposal to send unauthorised asylum seekers to Rwanda has provoked strong criticism in some quarters of the Jewish community — though not everyone is convinced that the policy will be enacted.

Ms Patel, speaking after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, said her plans would help put an end to the “deadly trade” of people-trafficking and also the “deeply unfair” current situation that “advantages those with the means to pay people-traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot”. She also deplored critics who judged the policy without offering a viable alternative.

But World Jewish Relief, Anglo-Jewry’s principal body dealing with refugees, tweeted angrily against the proposals on Friday. WJR said: “We are deeply concerned by today’s news of government plans to send asylum seekers to be processed in Rwanda. People arriving in the UK after fleeing the horrors of war and persecution deserve a fair hearing on British soil”.

And rabbis from the four major denominations in the UK — Orthodox, Masorti, Reform and Liberal — put their names to an open letter in Friday’s Guardian, headed by JCORE director Dr Edie Friedman. Rabbis David Mason, Jonathan Wittenberg, Jackie Tabick and Alexandra Wright said they were “utterly appalled” by what they described as the government’s “inhumane plans”, which they said flew in the face of Jewish values, and “would be a cruel, moral failure to those in urgent need of protections”.

The rabbis said they were “particularly disturbed” at the timing of the announcement, on the eve of Passover. “It is deeply unsettling that the government is seeking to deprive the opportunity of freedom to those fleeing modern-day tyrants”, they said, adding that such proposals brought to mind “unpleasant memories of the overseas internment of Jewish refugees in the Second World War”.

Some communal organisations are holding fire, as the policy is under discussion in the higher echelons of Whitehall, not currently convinced that the Rwanda scheme will actually be enacted. But there has already been government pushback after outspoken criticism by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, making the possibility slightly higher that Ms Patel might get her way.

Israel opened an embassy in Kigali in 2019 and in the same year Rwanda welcomed a Chabad representative, Rabbi Chaim Bar Sella. Reports suggest that between 2014 and 2017, Israel sent several thousand asylum seekers to both Rwanda and Uganda, under a contentious and secretive “voluntary” scheme. Few are believed to have remained there, with many trying to reach Europe.

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