The UK’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda would “completely erode” Britain’s standing on the world stage, the new head of Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.
Tirana Hassan, who takes over as HRW’s executive director on Monday, also said other conservative governments in Europe were considering following Britain’s lead and looking at African states as an offshore dumping ground for asylum seekers, potentially dealing further blows to established refugee protections.
“Everyone should care about this. This isn’t just about what’s happening in the UK,” Hassan told the Guardian, on the eve of her confirmation as HRW’s permanent new chief, succeeding Kenneth Roth, who did the job for nearly three decades.
The UK government’s deportation scheme was agreed with Rwanda nearly a year ago but has been held up by legal challenges since then, including the intervention of the European court of human rights. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, visited Kigali earlier this month to see accommodation blocks being built for deported asylum seekers from Britain, causing additional controversy by taking only the rightwing press with her.
The government has also proposed a restrictive new immigration bill under the slogan “stop the boats” aimed at cutting down refugee crossings of the Channel.
“It’s cheap politics, divisive and completely contrary to human rights,” Hassan said. “I think that this current government in the UK is essentially scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
“This is just going to completely erode any sort of international standing that the UK has when it comes to human rights on the international stage. They don’t have a leg to stand on in terms of their credibility any more,” Hassan said.
The government is confident it can overcome the political legal obstacles and begin deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda by this summer. Hassan said that if it succeeds, it would be a significant setback for human rights worldwide.
“What’s going to happen if the UK gets away with the Rwanda deal and that goes forward, is that other countries will follow,” she said, noting that north African countries were being considered as potentially sites for off-shore refugee camps by some European capitals. “We’ve already heard whispers of this – people who are going to conservative governments like Hungary, like Poland, like Italy, saying this is a model that can’t be replicated … It’s a very slippery slope.”
“It’s always coined as the rise of autocracy against democracy,” she said. “But it doesn’t always have to be about the rise of autocracy. It’s can actually just be a couple of pages out of the autocrat’s handbook that get passed around.”
The model of intercepting refugee boats and putting asylum seekers into offshore camps was pioneered by Australia, and the country’s former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has advised the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, on immigration policy.
Hassan said the immigration policies pursued by the Liberal party governments of John Howard and Tony Abbott torpedoed Australia’s hopes of leadership on human rights in the Indo-Pacific region.
“There was very little credibility for Australia to actually stand up on human rights issues when its domestic record was so poor,” she said.
In her last year in law school in Adelaide, Hassan co-founded a refugee advocacy group to represent refugees being held at a camp on a converted missile test range at Woomera.
“We had women sewing their lips together, children on hunger strike, people were literally throwing themselves off the top of the fences into lines of razor wire,” Hassan said. “That’s how desperate people were.”
Hassan, 48, who has been serving as acting head of HRW since Roth left in August last year, embodies a change in generation at the top of the organisation and her background is rooted in the global south. She was born in Singapore, the daughter of a Pakistani sociologist and a dentist mother who was half-Sri Lankan, half-Chinese and was born in Malaysia. The family had to move to Australia when she was three after her father, Riaz Hassan, wrote a book that irritated the Singaporean government.
Since stepping down, Hassan’s predecessor made news in January after the dean of the Harvard Kennedy school tried to block Roth from taking up a fellowship there over his past criticisms of Israel’s human rights record. The dean backed down after a public and academic outcry, and Hassan insisted the incident would in no way influence HRW’s approach to monitoring human rights in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“We consistently report on the abuses that come up. We don’t take sides,” she said. “Our job is to establish an independent narrative, to assess it against international law and make recommendations to governments to do something about it. We do that on Israel-Palestine the same way we do any other country in the world.”
As for the Biden administration, Hassan said it had done “a few good things” like taking strong action over China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, but added: “We’ve been pretty disappointed on the whole.”
She pointed to an immigration policy unveiled in January that limits the right to asylum, and the abandonment of Biden’s pledge to make Saudi Arabia a pariah for the murder of dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. After the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine caused a spike in oil prices, Biden courted Mohammed bin Salman in an effort to persuade him to raise production, culminating in a fist bump with the Saudi crown prince in July last year.
Hassan said: “This sort of flip-flopping really doesn’t bode well for the sort of commitments that we would hope to see from the administration.”