Out of sight, out of mind?
Rwanda deal is a cynical election ploy, writes Eddie Ford
Last week, the UK signed a deal with Rwanda that will see some unfortunate asylum-seekers given a one-way ticket. It follows a series of other outlandish plans, such as pushing back boats with wave machines, or sending migrants 8,000 miles away to the Falkland Islands.
The story goes that the Rwandan idea is in response to the supposed ‘crisis’ of migrants constantly crossing the English Channel in inflatable dinghies. More than 6,000 have risked it this year, with 651 people on 18 boats arriving on April 13 - making it the highest number in a day. With the xenophobic rightwing press and backbench Tory MPs making it sound like an invasion, the Royal Navy has taken over “operational command.” New ships, “cutting-edge” military drones and a Wildcat helicopter will be deployed, with £50 million extra cash allocated to bolster surveillance.
Under the scheme, people who have arrived in Britain by such means may be sent to Rwanda, where their asylum claims will be processed. They will be subject to Rwandan immigration rules as soon as they land and “encouraged” to apply for refugee status, having no immediate right to return to the UK. While their claims are being considered, which is expected to take about three months, they will be given accommodation and some means of support - though the details are extremely unclear. It also seems they would be free to come and go from their lodgings at all times, though you would be forgiven for being a bit sceptical. Those whose asylum claims are accepted would be helped to build a “new life” in Rwanda, which must be the dream of any Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan. According to various spokespersons from the UK government, they will receive up to five years access to education and support. As for those whose claims are rejected, they could be sent back to their country of origin. By all accounts, Boris Johnson wants the new deal to be operational within “weeks, or a small number of months”.
As an incentive (or bribe) home secretary Priti Patel agreed a £120 million economic deal with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. Money is expected to follow, with reports suggesting each migrant sent to Rwanda is expected to set British taxpayers back between £20,000 and £30,000 - which apparently would cover accommodation both before and after the journey, as well as the cost of a seat on the flight itself. However, you can guarantee that the real cost would end up much higher if it were ever to happen. Indeed, critics immediately pointed out that it would be cheaper to put those arriving in Britain up at the Ritz for a year - though you could say the same about prisoners as well.
This is not the first time that such a plan has been tried, of course. Israel attempted something similar in Rwanda with Eritrean and Sudanese migrants between 2014 and 2017. Inevitably, hundreds swiftly left the country. Then we have Australia, which spent more than £5 billion between 2013 and 2017 sending 3,127 people to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea - a mere £1.6 million per detainee. Some luckless soul calculated that for the same price the Australian government could have sent each detainee to Eton College for 33 years. The Papua New Guinea supreme court ruled in 2016 that the processing centre on Manus Island was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
Australia has a similar deal with the microstate of Nauru in the Pacific, which today remains its only offshore processing station. However, there was a riot in 2013, where allegations of sexual abuse against women and children and incidents of self-harm were reported amongst those detained.1 In other words, people who were already vulnerable when they attempted dangerous sea-crossings became more exposed and vulnerable under detention. The same could easily happen in Rwanda.
There has been talk of a home office “mutiny” against the scheme. Unions have said civil servants could stage mass walkouts in protest, which would be an excellent development. In the end, Patel had to issue a rare “ministerial direction” to overrule the concerns of civil servants over the cost of the scheme. This is only the second ministerial direction - an order enforced by a minister despite objection from a permanent secretary - the home office has received in 30 years. In a letter to Patel asking for the “direction”, the permanent secretary in question, Michael Rycroft, said he was satisfied that the policy would deter people and produce “potential savings”. A home office source told ITV News that “we are spending £4.7 million on hotels per day between those who have arrived illegally and through resettlement programmes”. Therefore “it would be wrong to let a lack of precise modelling delay a policy aimed at reducing illegal migration, saving lives and breaking the business model of the smuggling gangs”.
In typical style, Priti Patel has said that other countries could start to reproduce the British government’s “blueprint” - describing it as “bold” and “innovative”, though doubtlessly Weekly Worker readers would use far less flattering language. Human beings are a problem to be disposed of as quickly as possible, it seems - or at least banished thousands of miles away: out of sight, out of mind.
On Easter Sunday, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, accused the government of “subcontracting our responsibilities” and said the Rwandan plan cannot “stand the judgment of god”. Along the same lines, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, branded the government’s plan “evil” and Nicola Sturgeon thought it was “despicable and shameful”. Labour has denounced the scheme as “unworkable, unethical and extortionate”. No less to the point was Gillian Triggs, assistant secretary-general at the UN refugee agency - calling it an “egregious breach of international law and refugee law”, which will trigger many legal battles.
Inevitably, some have said the Tory government was being “institutionally racist” - Ukrainian refugees are treated differently to Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, etc, because they are white, not because of geo-political demands and manoeuvring. Ukrainian refugees are, of course, part of the propaganda war being conducted against Russia. The same goes for the offer of a five-year visa and a fast track to full UK citizenship made to Hong Kongers. Potentially 5.4 million of the territory’s 7.5 million population could apply. Needless to say, Britain, along with its US imperial master, is locked into a cold war with China.
There is more than an element of truth in the criticisms of the Rwanda scheme. Yes, you could say with some justification that it is irrational, immoral and fantastically costly. But that would be to miss the point. Sending migrants to Rwanda is not designed to be workable, nor does it have anything to do with taking action against ‘people smugglers’, combating the ‘evil trade’ in refugees, let alone saving money - a preposterous idea.
Rather, it is a cynical election ploy - pure political posturing of the basest kind, based entirely upon the need to save the Tory Party from a hammering in the May 5 local elections. It could also distract people from the ongoing partygate scandal. No wonder Johnson wants to start shipping off migrants to east Africa within weeks. Therefore, we need to understand the madness of Rwanda in that context. In order to rescue the prime minister from the hole he is still in, it has been decided to go after migrants who are illegally landing on our sacred British shores - and appeal to the sentiment (or prejudice) that Britain is an overcrowded island and cannot take any more (except for Ukrainians, at least for the time being).
As they surely must know, the Tories will be lucky to get 100 people to Rwanda. There are bound to be endless appeals, as both Johnson and Patel have acknowledged - hence the renewed grumbling about ‘lefty’ lawyers subverting the will of the people. The Rwanda threat will obviously not stop people coming. All you need to do is listen to an interview with refugees in Calais, because they speak … English, not other European languages. The reason is quite straightforward: the British empire was replaced by American hegemony, it is the dominant language on the planet - many people’s second language. Naturally enough, many want to join their relatives in Britain - who came previously and have managed to establish themselves.
The Tories now seem to be promoting the idea that only Ukrainian (and Hong Kong) refugees are welcome here. By contrast, we agree with the SWP’s Stand up to Racism, Counterfire, the UN, Amnesty International, Pax Christi, etc, etc, that refugees should be welcome here, but we would add that they should have full citizenship rights after just six months - not to mention the right to join effective trade unions as well. That means abolishing all anti-trade union laws.
The demand for open borders must go hand in hand with the demand to level up wages and conditions by limiting the competition between workers. Without that there is only liberal do-goodism or free-market madness.