Analysis: Britain’s bizarre, costly and cruel plan to deport migrants to Rwanda

Few people in Great Britain would be able quickly to find Rwanda on the world map, Most would probably only associate that small country with the 1994 mass slaughter of at least 800,000 people in the 100-day genocide against the Tutsi ethnic minority and politically moderate Hutus and Twa who resisted the violence. Thirty years on, this landlocked east-central African republic, home to just over 14 million, is in the news again as a limping Conservative government in the United Kingdom struggles to implement a bizarre and costly policy that would jet rejected migrants and failed asylum seekers over 4,000 miles to Rwanda.

Condemned by the Jesuit Refugee Service UK as a “cruel plan” that “violates human dignity,” the policy authorizes deporting people who come to the United Kingdom in search of safety to Rwanda. This controversial plan—opposed by other parties, civil society organizations and the U.K. public—has been stymied repeatedly in the courts and most recently by Parliament’s House of Lords.

Deportations to Rwanda suddenly appeared as a serious policy proposal in April 2022, first articulated in a five-year government plan, the Migration and Economic Development Partnership. The policy, first dreamed up by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, proposes to remove asylum seekers deemed to have arrived in the United Kingdom along illegal routes and without any legal right to remain. According to the plan, these deportees would be sent by chartered aircraft to Rwanda, where their claims would be processed. They would be expected to settle in Rwanda, not the United Kingdom, if their claims to refugee status were successful.

Condemned by the Jesuit Refugee Service UK as a “cruel plan” that “violates human dignity,” the policy authorizes deporting people who come to the United Kingdom in search of safety to Rwanda.

The policy thus outsourced both the people and the process to a distant third country. The first deportation flight, a 767 chartered for a reported 500,000 British pounds to carry just seven deportees, was set for June 2022. But the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg issued a last-minute injunction on June 15, and the flight, reportedly lined up for takeoff from a military airfield in Wiltshire, U.K., did not depart.

Liam Allmark, a senior spokesperson for JRS-UK, told America that his organization “resolutely opposes the cruel plan to forcibly transfer people seeking sanctuary here to Rwanda. It violates human dignity and abrogates our responsibility to provide safety for those who have been forced from their homes by war, poverty or persecution.”

Mr. Allmark added, “We must take responsibility for examining the claims of people seeking asylum here and give people a chance to rebuild their lives in the U.K. Like other policies rooted in performative cruelty towards refugees, this plan is hugely expensive and impractical. Were it ever to be enacted, it would destroy lives.”

Even though the plan has yet to be deployed, he said, “The damage is already being done.” “The very threat of removal is causing profound trauma for many refugees, while attacks on the right to claim asylum are becoming normalized in political discourse. As a society we can and must do better.”

In 2023, almost 30,000 unauthorized migrants came to the United Kingdom in boats crossing the English Channel, a significant drop from the 2022 total of 45,755, the highest number recorded since figures began to be collected in 2018. A government immigration official told BBC News that the 36 percent decline in 2023 was likely an aberration, explaining that the government expects numbers to increase substantially in 2024.

The Rwanda plan, thrown together more than anything else to save the Tory Party, is unloved by far-right Tories (too soft) and moderate centrists (too harsh).

Britain is far from the only Western state experiencing political and social storms over immigration, but the issue has dominated political discourse and electoral strategies here. Growing numbers of migrants have been reaching the United Kingdom by crossing the channel in small boats, their risky passage to the channel and then across it facilitated by unscrupulous “people smuggler” gangs. Thought to charge large sums to the unauthorized migrants, the criminal human trafficking networks have been increasingly targeted by U.K. law enforcement agencies, with some success.

The long, indented coastline of southeast England makes the traffickers’ task of evasion easier. Yet, contrary to the rhetoric of much of the media and populist bombast, which has to an extent seeped into popular consciousness, Britain is not the primary destination for most people seeking asylum in Europe.

Germany has accepted far more immigrants, including providing shelter for over 1 million refugees from Ukraine since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal aggression. Syrian and Afghan refugees have similarly received a heartier welcome in Germany, although opposition to migrants has become increasingly vocal, particularly among the far right.

The attraction of Britain to some migrants, according to the International Red Cross, is often the hope of reuniting with family members who have already settled legally in the United Kingdom. Many contemporary refugee-producing countries were part of the former British Empire. As a result, many of the unauthorized migrants have a familiarity with the English language that, they hope, will mean that it is easier for them to rebuild broken lives in a new land.

For almost a year, “Stop the Boats” has been the catchphrase among Conservative British politicians seeking to rouse their base. Now the beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is using the slogan to save his job and salvage his party’s increasingly bleak electoral fortunes. A Scottish newspaper uncovered the slogan’s provenance: Ten years ago under similar anti-immigrant circumstances, it was widely deployed during Australia’s general election.

Contrary to the rhetoric of much of the media and populist bombast, which has to an extent seeped into popular consciousness, Britain is not the primary destination for most people seeking asylum in Europe.

Under the U.K.’s election laws, Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party must “go to the country”—that is, sponsor a national vote—by this time next year. He has been dropping broad hints that he is planning an autumn general election.

Mr. Sunak knows that his party is far from united and therefore at electoral peril. Right-leaning members of Parliament, all favoring what they see as tough action on refugees and asylum seekers, need to be placated and kept on board, as the Tory party has got rather fond of deposing leaders. Mr. Sunak is calculating that the Rwanda deportation policy is one way to fend off succession plotters, and in 2023 he announced that stopping the boats was one of his five priorities for government.

But last year, opponents of the plan turned to legal strategies to cast doubt on the validity of claims that Rwanda is safe as a third-party country. The retired head of U.K. Armed Forces, Brigadier Sir Richard Dannatt, for example, attacked the plan, saying that Rwanda is still “living under the shadow of genocide.”

The United Kingdom’s highest court ruled in November 2023 that the Rwanda plan failed the test of “non-refoulement.” A core principle of international human rights and refugee protection law, non-refoulement ensures that asylum seekers not be returned to a country where they would be in danger. The judges held that Rwanda could not guarantee observance of the non-refoulement principle or prevent violation of deported people’s human rights.

Struggling to save the Rwanda plan, U.K. lawmakers from the Conservative Party have since attempted to set in law what could not be accepted by British courts, legislation that will simply declare that Rwanda is a safe country.

This through-the-looking-glass proposal will also add a veneer of legality to the sidestepping of another adverse legal decision, by the Council of Europe’s Court of Human Rights, as well as the defiance of the International Refugee Convention. There is a touch of irony in that the same right-leaning factions of the Tory party that pulled the United Kingdom out of the European Union are now enraged by the decision of the Court of Human Rights, a judicial body first established with the support of Tory icon Winston Churchill.

Mr. Sunak’s government has managed to get the bill through the House of Commons, but not the House of Lords. The drama over deportation continues. In the most recent development, U.K. media has revealed that the government granted asylum to four refugees from Rwanda, ironically acknowledging how unsafe the very country they suggest can host deported channel-crossers is.

It is not public outcry, on the whole, or even judicial action at the highest level that has led to this ugly impasse over Rwanda deportations. There is some public concern, often fueled by right-wing media and usually not well-informed, about how many people reach U.K. shores, trying to rebuild devastated lives; in Scotland, by contrast, there seems to be an awareness among native-born citizens of the need for immigration to promote prosperity in the future.

The Rwanda plan, thrown together more than anything else to save the Tory Party, is unloved by far-right Tories (too soft) and moderate centrists (too harsh). But it will likely be a front-and-center issue in the forthcoming U.K. general election, whenever it is called.

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