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Boris Johnson’s ‘Big’ Idea: Why UK's Rwanda Plan for Asylum Seekers Can Backfire

For Britain’s ruling Conservatives, the policy is an attempt to restore waning popularity.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Boris Johnson’s ‘Big’ Idea: Why UK's Rwanda Plan for Asylum Seekers Can Backfire
i

For a flagship policy designed to rescue the plunging fortunes of Boris Johnson’s government, its launch was a fiasco. A plane big enough to carry 200 passengers was due to take off from a military airbase in southern England on Tuesday evening to Rwanda. It never got airborne as last-minute legal appeals and the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights slashed the numbers to be sent on that flight to Rwanda against their will to 30 or so, then to seven, and, in the end, to none at all.

It's a big setback for the British government’s deeply controversial initiative to send asylum seekers whose application to stay in Britain has been rejected to Central Africa. The airlift is likely to have been delayed rather than stopped altogether, but it hardly bodes well for a policy that has had many observers scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Snapshot
  • The big idea is to dissuade asylum seekers, hundreds of whom are risking their lives by crossing the Channel on over-crowded small boats, from heading towards the beaches of southern England.

  • More than 10,000 migrants have landed in the UK so far this year, twice as many as in the same period last year.

  • The minister who has pushed forward this controversial approach to asylum seekers, Priti Patel, is herself the child of immigrants. Her Gujarati grandparents moved to Uganda, where they ran a store in the capital, Kampala.

  • For Britain’s ruling Conservatives, this is an attempt to restore popularity after Boris Johnson's 'partygate' scandal. Many of its core supporters are anxious about immigration.

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Number of Migrants Coming to UK Has Risen

The big idea is to dissuade asylum seekers, hundreds of whom are risking their lives by crossing the Channel on over-crowded small boats, from heading towards the beaches of southern England. The government wants the message to get out that if you land up in the UK and your claim for asylum is rejected, you could be told that you have a one-way ticket to Rwanda. The Rwandan authorities will consider whether those sent there can remain – some may end up as repeated refugee rejects.

In global terms, the number of refugees arriving in the United Kingdom is not that large. If you add up all those who have refugee status or are waiting to hear the outcome of an application for asylum, the total is equivalent to a quarter of 1 per cent of Britain’s population. But there has been an increase in the number of people making the perilous journey in small boats to the south coast of England – more than 10,000 migrants have landed in the UK so far this year, twice as many as in the same period last year.

Liberal opinion has been horrified by the idea of people who have sought refuge in Britain, and often arrived in great trauma and distress, being dumped in a small African nation with an indifferent human rights record. Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, has reportedly described the policy as ‘appalling’. The bishops of the Church of England have been even more forthright, collectively denouncing an ‘immoral policy that shames Britain’. The UN refugee agency has suggested that the British government’s initiative breaches international human rights conventions.

The minister who has pushed forward this controversial approach to asylum seekers, Priti Patel, is herself the child of immigrants. Her Gujarati grandparents moved to Uganda, where they ran a store in the capital, Kampala.

And in the 1960s, in the face of increasing hostility towards Asian traders and business people, her parents emigrated from Uganda to the UK.

Rwanda's Deal With the UK

We don’t know all the details of the handful of migrants who were – before the last-minute intervention of the courts – due to be on the initial flight. Given the patterns of asylum applications, they are likely to have been from countries such as Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Eritrea and Sudan. All are places where upheaval and political violence are endemic. It’s understood that only single men will be sent forcibly to Rwanda, and some officials have suggested that the total number to be despatched there may amount to no more than a few hundred people.

A small nation in Francophone Africa is not the most obvious destination for rejected asylum applicants from Britain. So, why Rwanda? Simply because the Rwandan government has done a deal with the British government to take these asylum seekers, provide them with temporary accommodation and offer some of them a lasting home. Although Rwanda – a land-locked nation of 13 million people in Central Africa – is a former colony of Belgium, its relations with Britain are good. It is one of the few countries never to have been a British colony, which is a member of the Commonwealth. Indeed, the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit will be held in Rwanda later this month.

Priti Patel and fellow British cabinet ministers argue that sending asylum seekers 4,000 miles to Rwanda is a necessary response to the increasing number of refugees being transported to Britain by unscrupulous criminal networks.

Their argument is that the Rwanda scheme is the only way of defeating the people-smugglers who extort huge amounts of money from migrants and consign some of them to death by crowding them into dinghies that are not seaworthy.

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Boris's Desperate Bid to Regain Support

For Britain’s ruling Conservatives, this is also an attempt to restore popularity with their core supporters, many of whom are anxious about immigration. That support has been damaged by the ‘partygate’ scandal, which led to Boris Johnson being fined for breaching COVID social distancing rules that he himself had introduced. It has also been eroded by a cost of living crisis exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine and the sharp increase in the cost of oil and gas.

To Boris Johnson’s critics, the Rwanda initiative appears to be a desperate – and reckless – move that is inconsistent with Britain’s long tradition of offering a haven to those facing persecution in their home countries. And the failure of the initial flight to take off on schedule adds to the perception of a policy that has not been well thought-out.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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