Britain really is changing its ways. Gone are the dark imperial days when the country was ruled by a class of heartless monsters, profiteering from snatching desperate people from Africa and sending them thousands of miles away. Nowadays, as if to right those wrongs, the British government does quite the opposite. Now they send desperate people thousands of miles to Africa.
This month, the UK government announced a new policy. Asylum seekers arriving illegally on UK shores will be immediately removed to Rwanda, following an agreement with the Rwandan government. Upon arrival in Rwanda, refugees will be processed, after which they will be either permitted to remain in Rwanda or forcibly returned to their own countries. They will not be allowed to return to Britain. The UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has assured the world that the policy will focus on single men arriving in boats and lorries, but it is hard to see how it would not result –– if implemented –– in families being torn apart. While the policy might be described as morally creative, it does not smack of a government that is full of ideas.
Asylum seekers arriving illegally on UK shores will be immediately removed to Rwanda.
The policy does not apply to Ukrainian asylum seekers, leading some critics to accuse the government of imposing a racist double standard that distinguishes between “worthy victims,” usually white Europeans, and “unworthy victims,” those from places such as Africa and the Middle East. Other western governments have also been accused of this, and several western media outlets have aired segments that appear openly to afford a higher degree of value to Ukrainian refugees than those from other parts of the world. It would be a little unfair, however, to accuse the UK government of such double standards as they have made it abundantly clear that they do not care about Ukrainians either. In the two months since the start of the war in Ukraine, only a measly 16,000 Ukrainians have been granted asylum in the UK, a pathetic figure in comparison with other European countries, and a fraction of the nearly three million who have fled Ukraine.
In announcing the scheme, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that the policy is intended as a “deterrent” that will reduce the amount of boats crossing the English Channel. This is presumably based on the theory that people will risk their lives on treacherous waters in order to flee war and famine, but will stay put if it means spending ten hours on British Airways. UK aviation has its critics, but it has yet to sink to the level where flying on it is considered worse than clinging to a sinking raft in the Mediterranean; that is, unless the migrants are removed to Rwanda by Ryanair.
Johnson went on to say that “Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognized for its record of welcoming and integrating migrants.” Funny then, that, less than a year ago, the UK government stated that it had deep concerns about civil and political rights in Rwanda and urged the Rwandan government to investigate allegations of killings, deaths in custody, and torture. The African country also has a poor record on its treatment of marginalized groups, particularly homosexuals. Meanwhile, the British government provides police protection to several Rwandan refugees living in the UK as it believes their claims that the Rwandan government is trying to kill them. Many of these people arrived in the UK illegally by sea. To be fair, perhaps by “integrating migrants” Johnson means that asylum seekers will be signed up to Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s kidnap squads.
The African country also has a poor record on its treatment of marginalized groups.
Hang on a minute though, if Rwanda is such a nice place, why would the prospect of being sent there act as a deterrent? Also, for something to be a deterrent, one has to be aware of it as a possibility. Therefore, apart from anything else, to accept the UK government’s framing of the policy means believing that desperate refugees living in lay-bys and squalid camps have the time and means to check the BBC News App for updates on the finer details of UK immigration policy.
To frame the conversation in this way is implicitly to reject that these asylum seekers truly are acting out of desperation –– it is part of a conscious strategy to paint refugees as cynical grifters, who take advantage of well-meaning, naive westerners, in order to exploit our system. On this, Britain’s political class appear largely in consensus –– the center-right opposition party has criticized and opposed the government’s plans, but primarily on the grounds that they will be ludicrously expensive and unworkable. An initial fee of £120 million ($151 million) has already been handed over to Rwanda and, if the scheme is rolled out in full, the Refugee Council estimates that number could rise to £1.4 billion ($1.8 billion). These figures are enough to raise eyebrows even within Johnson’s conservative party, with one former UK government minister quipping that it would be cheaper to put asylum seekers up at the Ritz. Yet the suspicion will remain that the true problem with the policy is a moral one.
In another indication of how well Britain is modernizing, it took the intervention of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the moral case against the proposals to be heard in the mainstream. In his Easter Sunday sermon, Archbishop Justin Welby accused the government of “subcontracting out our responsibilities” and stated that the Rwanda removal scheme cannot “stand the judgment of God.” It says all one needs to know about how far the Johnson government has moved to the right that it has lost the support of a man who wears a golden hat, carries a staff engraved with animal heads, and talks to the Almighty. The policy also drew the scorn of former Prime Minister Theresa May, which also takes some doing. It was May who, while Home Secretary, authorized vans bearing the slogan “Go Home” being sent to patrol menacingly in areas heavily populated with immigrants.
The bulk of the voices unafraid to make the moral case against the Rwanda removal scheme come from within the human rights community and the legal profession. Many lawyers and campaigners have hammered the proposals as illegal and inhumane. The policy stands to face heavy challenges in the courts from what Boris Johnson described as “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who, for years, have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government.” In reality, the UK asylum system is one of the strictest in the developed world, with applicants being put through a grueling series of interrogations that many experts argue do not live up to the UK’s human rights obligations.
“It is a cruel, draconian policy that treats vulnerable people…as human cargo.”
Johnson was correct in his prediction that his new brainwave would meet opposition from an “army” of pesky know-it-alls who insist on civilization, decency, and the rule of law. One such trouble-maker is Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, who said: “It is a cruel, draconian policy that treats vulnerable people, who have been victims of trafficking and torture, as human cargo, sending them thousands of miles to another country that has a very dubious record when it comes to human rights. It won’t deter people from crossing the channel. It won’t smash the business model of people smugglers. It won’t address any of the real reasons why people flee.”
Other critics and political opponents have variously condemned the policy as a pathetic attempt to sound a dog-whistle to racists and to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment in the UK, with some suggesting that Johnson knows the proposals will be thrown out in the courts but still hopes the policy will garner his party votes in the upcoming local elections. Some say the plans are intended primarily as a distraction from the government’s domestic scandals. The Prime Minister and several of his senior colleagues were recently fined for having illegal parties while the country was in Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, with further revelations to come from the police in the coming weeks. It is truly a proud time to be British.
In another characteristic stroke of class, Johnson even went as far as to call the new policy “compassionate.” To the uninitiated reader, describing the removal of helpless migrants to a country thousands of miles from their homes as “compassionate” might seem like a bit of a stretch, but it is important to remember that this is the British ruling class we are talking about. Viewed through this lens, the humanitarian nature of the policy begins to shine through. To people like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, shipping asylum-seekers to Rwanda is the sissy, lefty thing to do. The “centrist” option would be shooting migrants dead in the sea, and their preferred, hardline, right-wing option would be having them stuffed and hung on the drawing room wall or skinned and turned into novelty rugs.
Johnson even went as far as to call the new policy “compassionate.”
Not satisfied with merely lauding the supposed compassion of the proposed removals, Johnson actually went as far as to claim that “our compassion may be infinite” for the plight of refugees. To all but Johnson’s most fervent supporters, however, the UK government’s compassion appears not so much “infinite” as nonexistent. The whole thing is a damning indictment of the callous and cynical European response to the so-called “refugee crisis” that began in 2011 with the advent of the Syrian civil war.
In truth, Britain, and Europe in general, are not suffering from a “refugee crisis.” Europe’s per capita refugee intake is minuscule in comparison with many countries around the world. Of Lebanon’s total population of 6.8 million, around 1 million are refugees from Syria alone. Rather, Europe is in the grip of a moral crisis. We fail to understand our obvious moral responsibilities towards our fellow human beings because we do not truly understand ourselves.
Much of this misunderstanding is rooted in Britons’ failure to come to terms with (and overcome) our colonial history and the mindset that comes with it. We suspect that refugees want to come to our country to steal our resources because that is what we do to them. The way we treat refugees is a reflection of our inability to be honest with ourselves. We deny the existence of their plight because admitting the hell that many people around the world are born into would mean admitting our part in creating it. In the eyes of much of the world, the UK must look increasingly like a person failing in life because they refuse to confront the past.
The way we treat refugees is a reflection of our inability to be honest with ourselves.
Our assumption that we have the right to pluck Syrians and Afghans out of the sea and send them to Rwanda, for instance, is a clear hangover from the days of empire: it rests firmly on the idea that “Britannia Rules the Waves.” Many of the critics of the Rwanda removal policy have asked why we cannot simply process refugees in France, before they ever make the channel crossing, unable to conceive of the idea that the UK does not have jurisdiction in France, powerless to comprehend that Britain no longer runs the world. It really is rather sad.
But never mind. There may be one final glimmer of hope for those aiming to find safe refuge in Britain. Like almost every country in the world, Rwanda is ahead of the UK on recycling policy. In fact, no one in possession of non-biodegradable packaging may set foot on Rwandan soil. So, if you are planning on fleeing war, drought, famine, or persecution and seeking out a better life for you and your family in Britain, make sure you take a plastic bag with you. And cling on tight.