The UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has raised both ethical and legal questions. Why is it still pressing ahead?
“The principal must stand the judgement of God and it cannot. Subcontracting out our responsibilities, even to a country that seeks to do well like Rwanda, is the opposite of the nature of God.”The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Those were the stern words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his Easter address.
In it, he criticised the government for its plan to send people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda.
“The scheme intended to undermine people smugglers, will apply to men and women but not children or families such as those who arrive here in small boats across the channel, or on lorries, and it will include those who’ve come since the beginning of the year.”BBC News
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the policy could see Britain send tens of thousands of asylum seekers to the African country over the next few years.
Once there they would be housed temporarily in facilities like hostels or hotels and be subject to Rwandan immigration rules. They will be encouraged to apply for refugee status, but will have no immediate right to return to the UK.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has called the plan a “groundbreaking long-term partnership” which will “set an international standard”.
But human rights groups have also raised “serious ethical questions”.
“I think fundamentally, it’s an inhumane, unworkable, highly expensive policy that really shouldn’t even be… we shouldn’t even be talking about this, it shouldn’t be being considered.”France 24 News
Former home secretary and prime minister Theresa May questioned whether the policy was legal…
“I do not support the removal to Rwanda policy on the grounds of legality, practicality and efficacy…”Theresa May, former home secretary and prime minister
And in a letter, Matthew Rycroft, the top civil servant at the Home Office, warned Priti Patel that there was insufficient evidence to prove that migrants will be deterred from entering Britain illegally as a result of the government’s plan.
And he said it’s not clear whether the UK’s proposed agreement with Rwanda would provide value for money for the taxpayer.
The government has said it will pay an initial £120 million to the Rwandan government over five years but that doesn’t include additional costs for food, housing, or transport.
For Priti Patel though, she has to be seen to be doing something to stop people crossing the English channel in small boats and claims the Rwanda plan will do just that.
“I think it’s just important to say right now, you cannot put a price on saving human lives.”Priti Patel, Home Secretary
So, has the government got exactly what it wanted?
Up until this point, the idea of sending asylum seekers to other countries has mainly been floated in off the record briefings to journalists.
In November last year, it was reported that the government was in talks with Albania to process people there but that turned out to be untrue.
Here’s the Albanian Ambassador to the UK speaking to LBC…
Albanian Ambassador: “As my prime minister stated yesterday, the foreign minister also tweeted yesterday, that doesn’t exist any negotiations between Albania and UK regarding these processing centres.”
Presenter: “There’s been no talks whatsoever Ambassador?”
Albanian Ambassador: “Zero talks between Albania and the UK regarding this issue.”France24 news
Recent research by Ipsos Mori showed 60 per cent of the public were dissatisfied with the government’s migration policy with more than half citing Channel crossings, so it needed to be seen to be doing something to tackle the problem.
Although last week, a snap YouGov poll showed 35 per cent of those asked supported the government’s Rwanda proposal, while 42 per cent opposed it.
In a post-Brexit world, Boris Johnson and his home secretary are under pressure to deliver on their promise to “take back control” of Britain’s borders and want to show pro-leave voters in seats it won from Labour at the last election that it’s doing just that.
“This innovative approach, driven by our shared humanitarian impulse and made possible by Brexit freedoms, will provide safe and legal routes for asylum while disrupting the business model of the gangs.”Boris Johnson
For the Conservatives, it also highlights a major political distinction between itself and the Labour Party ahead of local elections in a few week’s time, because it forces opposition politicians to explain their plans for tackling immigration. This was deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner on Radio 4’s Today programme…
Nick Robinson: “Let me put it to you that one of the reasons you have not yet convinced people that you are ready to take office is that you are asked the question again and again in the House of Commons… not you personally but Labour spokespeople yesterday… what would you do to stem that flow? And an answer didn’t really come did it?”
Angela Rayner: “Well we’ve been very clear on the answer to that and that is cracking down on gang masters and these people that are trying to smuggle people into the UK.”BBC Radio 4’s Today programme
The UK isn’t the only country to try this kind of thing.
Australia has processed asylum seekers off-shore for the last twenty years, spending around £1.9 million a year per person. Like the UK, Israel tried to send refugees to Rwanda in 2014, only for the agreement to collapse a few years in.
And this week it’s been revealed that Denmark, an EU member state, is in talks with Rwanda to set up a similar scheme too.
Number 10 policy chief Andrew Griffith said the UK’s asylum scheme could be operational within “weeks or a small number of months” which shows the government wants to appear to be getting on with it.
There are plenty of legitimate concerns about the policy, including Rwanda’s own human rights record and the Home Secretary has not shown any evidence yet that the policy would stop people making the perilous journey across the Channel.
But the plan allows the government to signal to its core voters that it is acting on their concerns about immigration whilst also picking a fight with groups it can paint as being on the left or too liberal.
The potential challenge will come later. If people continue to cross the channel in the numbers we’ve seen, the criticisms levelled at the policy will be shown to be accurate and Priti Patel will be left to explain why it hasn’t worked.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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