Why the Rwanda policy makes no sense practically or politically

Practically speaking the bill will not do what Sunak claims.

Rishi Sunak

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

When the obituaries are written on Rishi Sunak’s premiership and the mistakes made which minimised his admittedly short odds of turning around Conservative fortunes post Brexit, Boris Johnson, partygate and Liz Truss’ disastrous tenure and mini budget, high on the list of errors will be his almost unfathomable determination to force through the Rwanda asylum policy.

The policy makes no sense either practically, financially or politically.

Practically speaking the bill will not do what Sunak claims. Even if he gets it operational – an unlikely outcome given opposition from the House of Lords and the Supreme Court – only hundreds, perhaps a couple of thousand asylum seekers will make the trip to Kigali.

Almost 100,000 people seeking asylum in the UK are waiting for a decision. Even a fully functioning Rwanda policy would make little difference to numbers. There is no suggestion that Rwanda would be willing to take significantly larger numbers, nor that the Government would be willing or able to pay them to do so.

Instead Sunak claims that the mere threat of deportation would deter asylum seekers from coming to the UK, and hence ‘stop the boats’, despite asylum seekers themselves rubbishing the idea.

The right wing press would have you believe the UK is uniquely attractive to asylum seekers when the opposite is true. The vast majority of displaced people stay within their home countries or move to a neighbouring one. Of those that do come to Europe, the UK takes a comparatively smaller number than France, Germany and many other nations.

Those that do come to the UK generally have good reason to do so – a family member being already here, a historical link, they may speak English or come from a Commonwealth country. Increasingly undeserved under this Government, in much of the world the UK still has a reputation for fairness, justice and welcome; some come because they expect a helping hand, not the months or years long limbo and hostility they receive.

The chances of any asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda appear slim at best. Last week the plan was condemned by Conservative peers, historians and bishops in an indication that the House of Lords could demand changes that might delay its implementation.

Even Sunak’s former allies voiced grave concerns. Former Conservative Chancellor Ken Clarke argued that the bill represents a “very dangerous constitutional provision” because it seeks to overturn a Supreme Court judgement and would prevent any further judicial view on whether Rwanda is indeed a safe country for asylum seekers.

The Archbishop of Canterbury warned that “a pick-and-choose approach to international law” undermined the UK’s global standing as he signalled that he might seek to block the policy at a later date.

The bill remains unlikely to be entirely blocked by the Lords but will be radically amended, and is unlikely to pass in anything like its current form in time for Sunak to start flights ahead of a spring or autumn election.

Practically speaking this leaves thousands of asylum seekers in limbo, staying at the Government’s expense in often unsuitable accommodation. Many of these people are highly traumatised. They need their cases to be heard and, if successful, they need to be granted refugee status and helped to start new lives.

Politically the saga, perhaps more than any other policy, makes Sunak look both extreme and inept. Extreme because even for voters who believe asylum numbers should be reduced or that it is reasonable to seek to process claims in a third country it is evident that Rwanda does not become a safe country simply because Sunak decides it.

Most British people believe the asylum system should be fair to asylum seekers and to the British public – wasting millions needlessly on hotels when claims could be processed, and millions more on a Rwanda deal that is unlikely to pass brings justice to neither group. The ongoing drama adds to the sense that Sunak really is not up to the job of Prime Minister, contributing to his incredibly poor personal poll rating.

Sunak may regret not taking the opportunity to ditch the policy when given the chance. The Supreme Court gave him the perfect excuse: it ruled unanimously that there were substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would face a real risk of ill-treatment as a result of “refoulement” (being returned) to their country of origin.

Refoulement is prohibited by numerous international law instruments, including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the UN Refugee Convention, the UN Convention against Torture, and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

By rejecting their judgement Sunak unites those concerned for the safety of asylum seekers with those who believe the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts in this country matters. On the latter point he joins Boris Johnson in having little regard for the British constitution or international law, a comparison he should want to avoid.

The Rwanda policy will die with Sunak’s Government. A Labour administration may be able still to take up Rwanda president Paul Kagame’s offer to return money paid for non-existent arriving asylum seekers, using it to speed the process of assessing asylum claims.

It will also need to work with France and others in the EU to devise a Europe-wide and fair system of processing asylum claims. Given the likelihood that increasing numbers will seek refuge in an age of renewed conflicts and – above all else – climate change, Europe and the world’s wealthier nations need to decide how we respond in ways which align with our values and are achievable.

One policy it should consider is the restoration of foreign aid to 0.7% of GDP, and its full use for aid in developing countries (instead of misdirecting it to business use and to pay for asylum seeker accommodation in the UK as the Conservatives have done).

Only by investing in the stability, climate resilience and prosperity of the countries from which people flee will numbers be reduced. There is a virtuous circle here which the UK, EU and other western nations should recognise, grasp and invest in.

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