Priti Patel’s ambition to send asylum seekers as far away from the UK mainland as she can has a history. Two years ago, the home secretary looked at shipping Channel migrants to processing centres from north Africa to the South Atlantic. Those ideas eventually bit the dust, on grounds that included the scheme’s inhumanity, impracticability and eye-watering costs. But Ms Patel has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a wicked idea.
On Thursday, the home secretary announced in Kigali that, in return for £120m of development aid, Rwanda will accept the transfer of UK asylum seekers. This is a much more sweeping approach, since it apparently involves no asylum claim processing. That makes it simply an expulsion exercise, which, apart from any other objections, carries many colonial-era echoes.
Although Rwanda was described by Boris Johnson as a dynamic country and one of the world’s safest, it was condemned only this week by the US state department as a country with “significant human rights issues”, which include arbitrary killings and detentions, forced disappearances, and harsh and life-threatening prison conditions. A similar policy in Rwanda run by Israel fell apart in 2017 when only nine of about 4,000 deportees were found to have remained there.
It is far from clear that this latest example of Ms Patel’s addiction to the politics of performative cruelty will in fact be put into practice, let alone happen – or be effective – on a large scale. The significance of Thursday’s announcement was as much in its cynical timing as in its cold-hearted substance. Mr Johnson is being hammered again by the unpopularity of his Downing Street pandemic lawbreaking and fines. His party is facing serious losses in the local elections in three weeks’ time because of it. The chances of a vote of confidence against him are rising again. For the prime minister, a headline-grabbing crackdown initiative on immigration provides a media distraction, a chance to rally his anti-immigration voters before the local elections, and puts pressure on the MPs and peers who are still blocking asylum law changes in the government’s immigration and borders bill.
There is no disputing that the dangerous and inhumane people-smuggling operations in the Channel need to be gripped and controlled more effectively. Nor is there doubt, as spring turns to summer, that numbers are likely to go on rising; more than 28,500 made the crossing in 2021, and the Home Office is reported to expect the figure to double this year. But the answer to that challenge is not for the UK military to seize the migrants, load them in planes, send them to east Africa on a one-way flight and forget about them.
That approach is objectionable on multiple grounds. It is expensive, inhumane, at odds with this country’s history of commitment to refugees, likely to prove illegal and unlikely to be the deterrent that Ms Patel hopes. It is a racist measure; it seems unlikely that a white Ukrainian asylum seeker arriving in Britain would ever be sent to Rwanda. It is also not as popular as some assume; a snap poll on Thursday showed that a majority of voters oppose the scheme.
The answer, as always, must be a pragmatic and just approach. It should be to work with France and other European neighbours more thoroughly to process claims better and more fairly, and to make deals for the return of those who do not qualify. This government, though, shows little sign of wanting to do that. The abject truth is that Mr Johnson and Ms Patel prefer to stage a row about asylum seekers than to join with other states and charities to address the global, criminal and humanitarian issues that are causing so much suffering.