It was ‘almost the Easter story of redemption’, the pious British minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said of his government’s plans to fly those seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda, 6,400km away, to deter migrants’ dangerous journeys to Britain and put people-smuggling networks out of business.
No, the idea was ungodly, said the Church of England’s two top clerics. The scheme to ‘sub-contract out our responsibilities … must stand the judgment of God – and it cannot’, said Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, called it ‘depressing and so distressing’ that ‘asylum-seekers fleeing war, famine and oppression would not be treated with the dignity and compassion that is the right of every human being and instead … will be shipped to Rwanda.’
Under the proposals, which emulates a 2014 Israeli-Rwandan agreement, the central African state and fellow Commonwealth member will process and resettle single men and women from the UK in return for £120m ($150m) of aid. As Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office permanent secretary, put it: ‘The UK’s legal obligations end once an individual is relocated to Rwanda.’
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, called the scheme an ‘innovative approach, driven by our shared humanitarian impulse’, while the home secretary, Priti Patel, promised relocated asylum-seekers ‘up to five years of training, integration, accommodation, healthcare, so they can resettle and thrive’. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, declared: ‘We are not trading human beings … we’re helping.’
However, the proposals were condemned by refugee organisations and human rights bodies. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it ‘firmly opposed’ the plan, saying: ’Such arrangements simply shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations, and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention.’ People fleeing war, the UN refugee agency said, ‘should not be traded like commodities’. A BBC analysis highlighted the ‘Catch-22’ facing an asylum seeker from Iraq or Iran: ‘They can only claim asylum to Britain on British soil. But in reaching the UK, they make themselves inadmissible for asylum.’
The response from one group of migrants, who had arrived in the UK on small boats from France, was unequivocal: all 22 said they would kill themselves rather than be deported. ‘If they send me to Rwanda, I will not go. I will die here,’ said Jemal, an Eritrean. ‘Do you know how many thousands of miles I travelled to be here? How long I was in [the] desert?’
‘Rwanda has an abysmal human rights record,’ said Lewis Mudge, of Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has reported extensively on how the poor and marginalised are arbitrarily detained at Kigali’s Gikondo transit centre. In its report on the ‘show trial’ of Paul Rusesabagina, the New York Times called Rwanda ‘an authoritarian state where Mr Kagame exerts total control, his troops are accused of plunder and massacres in neighbouring Congo, and political rivals are imprisoned, subjected to sham trials or die in mysterious circumstances.’
Two separate legal challenges to Patel’s plan were launched within days; one by the charity Freedom from Torture and the other by the PCS union, whose members would have to implement the policy, and the charities Detention Action and Care4Calais.
Rwanda is mainland Africa’s most densely populated nation, and the decades of ethnic and political tensions that erupted in the 1994 genocide was partly due to competition over land and resources, which the influx of thousands of migrants can only exacerbate. ‘There’s not a lot of open land,’ Mudge said. ‘It’s difficult to see how they could take tens and tens of thousands of people.’
Amid widespread criticism of the policy on legal, moral and logistical grounds, civil servants tasked with implementing the policy reportedly asked whether they could refuse to implement it, with one official comparing working in the Home Office to serving under the Third Reich. Rycroft told staff that they had no choice but to implement the policy, even though he had also opposed the plans. In an official letter, he warned Patel that the scheme did not offer value for money as ‘evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain’. She issued a rare ministerial direction, obliging him to carry out the plan.
The idea of transporting migrants thousands of miles away as a deterrent is not new: two years ago, Patel (whose own Asian family would not have been let into the UK under her own new immigration laws) asked officials to look into sending asylum-seekers to Ascension Island, an isolated British territory 1,000 miles from Africa.
Halting immigration to the UK, though it fuelled a boom in the preceding years, has obsessed the Conservative Party since it got into power in 2010, leading to the Brexit vote in 2016 and departure from the European Union. Though Johnson claims the UK is a welcoming haven and has boasted of his government’s ‘proud, proud record’, the hostility to migrants has spilled over into its treatment of refugees – the BBC found 20 other European countries had taken in more refugees relative to population. With more than 28,000 migrants crossing the Channel in small boats last year, there is support for the plan among the public, media pundits and Tory MPs, such as Alexander Stafford, who called it ‘the right thing to do, because it will cut down on illegal immigration and reduce pressure on public services, [and] will ultimately save lives.’
Nevertheless, Sunder Katwala, who has written extensively on migration, argues that the policy is likely to fail and misreads the mood of the country. A Times survey reveals the gulf between supporters of the main parties, with 69% of Conservative voters backing it, compared with only 11-12% of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters in favour. Revealingly, it added that the ‘public appears to be misinformed about how Britain compares with other countries, with a third saying the UK takes in more asylum seekers than other countries. Last year the UK accepted around a fifth of the number of asylum applications granted by France.’
Many observers regard the Rwanda plan as a ‘dead-cat’ distraction, as part of Operation Red Meat, in the same week that Johnson was fined for parties at No 10 while the country was in lockdown and MPs debated whether he should face an inquiry over allegedly lying to parliament. For the Johnson government, which ‘launches fights for the sake of it’, the Economist’s Bagehot column argued that ‘political spectacle trumps substance’. The Guardian, referring to Patel’s ‘politics of performative cruelty’, called it ‘simply an expulsion exercise [with] many colonial-era echoes’, and noted that four years after Israel sent migrants to Rwanda, only nine asylum-seekers remained there.
In a leader, the Economist warned that the biggest risk was that the plan could work, and encourage other rich countries to export their asylum-seekers to other countries, ‘no matter how autocratic’ and thereby wreck the Refugee Convention. ‘Protecting refugees is a shared obligation, not something to buy your way out of.’
Oren Gruenbaum is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.