Illegal and inhumane

Don Flynn says Priti Patel’s Rwanda scheme is just another day on the Culture War frontline

With Partygate still having the capacity to wound, and the grim prospect of a cost of living crisis which will bring real hardship to millions of households, then who can really be surprised that the home secretary would reach deep into the bag to see what anti-migrant rabbit can be conjured up for the delight of the British people. Oh, and there were a lot of elections coming up as well…

So, what is there to say about Priti Patel’s latest gee-whizz solution to the migrant crisis? It sits alongside all her other brilliant ideas, like giving £50 million to French gendarmes to patrol the beaches between Calais and Boulogne, wave machines to repel refugee boats, and immigration officers on jet-skis, which were meant to look good but quickly lost their lustre. Will transporting asylum seekers to Rwanda suffer the same fate?

The plan only exists in pencil outline at the moment, but we know the intention is to shovel money in the direction of the authorities in Kigali – £120 million in the first tranche – in return for them agreeing to receive refugees who arrive by small boat after completing the hazardous channel crossing. The message being broadcast is that this is all intended as a blow directed against people smugglers, with the aim of making their business model unviable. But the people Johnson has in mind as the core audience probably just need to understand that there will be fewer migrants arriving on our hallowed shores. 

Critics of the plan have lined up to take pot shots. The Archbishop of Canterbury says it lacks humanity. Theresa May, in a manner that seems shameless given her role in developing the policies that produced the Windrush scandal, also advertises a newfound concern for the wellbeing of migrants. Other backbenchers, foremost being Andrew Mitchell, who seem to have a genuine commitment to helping developing countries, say it is wrong to outsource the task of resettlement to places that struggle to meet the needs of their own populations. Labour’s Yvette Cooper, speaking as shadow home secretary, echoes the concerns of civil service mandarins who question whether it will be value for money.

The claim that it will strike a blow at the gangs who run people-trafficking activities cannot be taken seriously. These are entrepreneurs who flourish in the conditions of black markets, where the supply of goods or services is artificially constrained by official government policy. The black-marketeer invests in intelligence-gathering activity that has changes to regulations constantly under review and combines this with an excellent understanding of the weak spots in the ways in which controls are operated. The Rwanda proposal is vulnerable because of its sheer sketchiness as to who can be removed to the African state, as well as its openness to legal challenge on grounds of incompatibility with international law. The traffickers will leverage all of this to make the case to desperate customers that it’s worth the cost and risk to life, arguing there are still enough gaps in the system to make a trip across the channel.

The problem for the people who will be rallying to the support of the refugees is that the government has never really lost support for propounding unworkable policies, providing it can claim that the failure was all the fault of ‘woke’ human rights supporter types who care nothing for the will of the people. The Rwanda plan rolls right into the playbook of right-wing culture wars which maintain the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Might it be different this time? Johnson and Patel will have to contend with an awkward scenario which hasn’t existed before in having to run two refugee policies in parallel: one which seems generous to groups like the Ukrainians (and Hong Kong Chinese), for whom the doors are being held somewhat open, whilst Asians and Africans in near-identical circumstances are shuttled around the globe to endure what will undoubtedly be appalling conditions.

This messy state of affairs, that is becoming the hallmark of refugee policy, will have to be closely watched to see what gains for the rights of people moving across borders can be leveraged from all its ambiguities. The task of building solidarity with migrant people across the range of issues that compel their movement is expanding out into an ever more complex range of activities which involve legal challenge, practical support for people in need, and open defiance of oppressive laws. 

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