Since the government unveiled a deal with the Rwandan government to deport asylum seekers there, almost two months ago, the chorus of dismay it prompted has only grown louder. The first flight is supposed to go in a week. It is not too late for ministers to abandon their cruel scheme and, regardless of Boris Johnson’s fate, this is what should happen.
The 1951 refugee convention has set the standard for the way that governments should deal with people fleeing persecution in other countries for more than 70 years. Mr Johnson is far from the first prime minister to show disdain for these rules and for the lawyers whose job it is to fight for them. But he and his home secretary, Priti Patel, have surpassed their predecessors in the opportunistic way that they have approached this issue, by reducing a complex set of problems to the criminal acts of people smugglers. Mercifully the “turnaround tactic” of pushing small boats back into French waters was withdrawn before a judicial review.
But no sooner is one unworkable and inhumane scheme abandoned than another one pops up. The shock and distress of the roughly 100 men selected for ejection to Rwanda has been painful to read about in recent weeks. A five-day hunger strike by one group, at the Brook House immigration removal centre, ended on Friday. Several men, including a Syrian who faces being separated from his teenage brother if he is deported, have described thoughts of suicide. Other nationalities represented include Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans and Iraqis. In at least two cases, it is disputed whether those due to be sent are adults.
Several charities, including Freedom from Torture, have begun legal action. The government is being challenged for violating the refugee convention and acting irrationally in treating Rwanda as a “safe third country”. Critics correctly point out that Rwanda’s record on human rights is flawed. The Home Office has acknowledged grounds for concern about the way LGBTQ+ people are treated there.
Specific risks aside, there are broader objections to any system of offshoring asylum seekers before their claims have been processed. In some cases, this will entail returning people to the continent that they fled in the first place; in others, sending them to a continent where they have never been. Either way, the Conservative MP Jesse Norman was right to describe the policy as “ugly” in the letter that he sent to the prime minister, explaining why he has withdrawn his support.
Judging by the evidence so far, it is also ineffective. Of about 9,000 people to have arrived in the UK on small boats so far this year, almost half have come since it was launched. The hoped-for deterrent effect appears not to exist, which is unsurprising when you consider the desperate conditions that people are escaping (the largest group by nationality in the first three months of this year was Afghans).
Compared with many other countries, the number of refugees in the UK is tiny. Ministers should recognise this and seek to turn down the heat on the subject, rather than continually turning it up. In place of the Rwanda plan, ministers should announce that asylum seekers will be able to work while they wait for decisions, and that aid budgets (and the department that used to administer them) will be restored. New efforts should be made to work constructively with France. Britain does not need any more border control stunts.