Asylum seekers cannot be exchanged for money
Priti Patel, the British home secretary, is right. Yes, you read it correctly, I do agree with Patel on something. I agree with her that people-smuggling gangs are unscrupulous and contemptible human beings (although she didn’t put it exactly in these terms), who for sheer greed, and greed alone, are ready to exploit the despair of many thousands of people who are escaping persecution and other threats to their lives and freedoms, and to take from them extortionate amounts of money in their hope to reach some promised land while risking their lives in the process. Patel is also right that those boarding small boats in the English Channel deserve better lives, free of fear and want, and that the UK alone can’t solve all the refugee tragedies of the world.
Here ends my agreement with the Johnson government on its refugee and asylum policies, and especially its new venture of outsourcing its responsibilities to other countries. The British government’s plan to send asylum seekers who land in the UK to Rwanda, with whom it has just made an agreement to do so, lacks compassion, flies in the face of international conventions the UK is committed to, and in a complete betrayal of British values which manifests a callous disregard for the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. It reflects a deep-seated contempt for people from the developing world, combined with pandering to a constituency that shares the very same fear and distaste of the other — while serving as a convenient deflection from the government’s entanglement in other issues such as the rising cost of living and the “partygate” scandal.
This agreement with the government in Kigali disturbingly underlines the xenophobic nature of Britain’s current immigration policies. It is true that the official rhetoric on welcoming Ukrainian refugees exceeds by far the practicalities of making it easy for them to settle in the UK, but it is strikingly friendlier in tone and in general approach, and thankfully no one is suggesting sending them to a country with a tainted human rights record. Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of making victims of wars and other atrocities feel welcome and catering for their needs, but the policy should be consistent and regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Official figures by the British government show a constant increase in people arriving in small boats across the English Channel. Most of them are fleeing from Iran, Iraq, Eritrea and Syria. It does not take a profound expertise in international affairs to realize that those people are risking their lives and parting with sums of money they can ill afford, not to better their standard of living, but to escape to safety from regimes with an appalling human rights record. The very use of the term “illegal immigrants” applied to people who are fleeing for their lives to avoid murder, incarceration, torture or any other form of human rights abuse is misleading, unfair and insulting.
It smacks of the old-style colonialist habit of getting rid of people who are not wanted by packing them off to faraway places.
When the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Justin Welby, in a rare intervention on a political matter, called the deal by which in return for £120 million Rwanda will accept the transfer of some UK asylum seekers “a principle that doesn’t stand the judgment of God,” he captured the view of many in the country, whether religious or not. Similarly, a letter signed by 160 UK charities with immense experience in supporting refugees and asylum seekers, stated that sending “people seeking asylum to Rwanda will cause immense suffering, with the most vulnerable people bearing the brunt. This is a shamefully cruel way to treat people who have come to the UK to seek protection, fleeing persecution or conflict.”
The moral argument against such an act of sending people to a country that most of them have no knowledge or understanding of, with no guarantees that they will be treated humanely, almost makes itself. More than anything else it smacks of the old-style colonialist habit of getting rid of people who are not wanted by packing them off to faraway places, and in this case also exploiting the dire economic conditions of an African country to persuade it to take off our hands people whom we reject. Most staggering is that the British government is prepared to cut such a deal with a government that not long ago it criticized for its restrictions on civil and political rights and media freedom, and called on it to conduct a “transparent, credible and independent investigation into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture.” It seems that for people who have already experienced extreme trauma in their own country, being sent to Rwanda is a case of getting out of the frying pan into the fire.
But there is not only an overwhelming moral argument against this grand plan. The scheme was not even thought through within the parameters set by the government itself. The home secretary had to use “ministerial direction” to execute this policy, an overriding mechanism which is used when a secretary of state faces objections to a policy from the permanent secretary — the most senior civil servant. And indeed, in this case the permanent secretary did object and concluded: “I do not believe sufficient evidence can be obtained to demonstrate that the policy will have a deterrent effect significant enough to make the policy value for money.”
And as well as being too expensive, this policy is also unlikely to withstand the scrutiny of the courts, let alone the judgment of God. What the British government should have done before adopting this ill-conceived scheme was to look into a similar deal between Israel and Rwanda that resulted in nearly all of those who were sent to the African nation departing it almost immediately, leaving the handful who remained with few rights and no residential status.
Most likely this plan will prove to be stillborn and will be shut down by the courts. However, the fanfare with which it was announced will still serve its purpose for the Johnson government in enhancing its credentials as tough on immigration, as it blames the justice system, the parliamentary opposition, civil society, and above all the “too liberal” European Convention on Human Rights, for “putting the country’s borders at risk.” Populism at the expense of demonstrating humanity is not dead, and outsourcing the future of asylum seekers is just another ugly face of it.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.