Back in December 2020, the Independent reported that Chris Philp – the then UK parliamentary under secretary of state and minister for immigration compliance and justice – had “refused to rule out sending asylum seekers to a remote island or disused oil platforms, or creating a ‘giant wave machine’” to repel migrant-bearing dinghies in the English Channel.
Now, Britain’s Conservatives have devised an even better solution to the migrant issue, whereby the United Kingdom will simply send asylum seekers to the African nation of Rwanda, about 6,500km (4,000 miles) away. And the new plan is already making waves. As John Washington, author of The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the US-Mexican Border and Beyond, remarked on Twitter: “How much more darkly bonkers the global border regime will yet become is terrifying”.
The refugee-outsourcing arrangement was formalised on April 14 during a descent upon the Rwandan capital of Kigali by British Home Secretary Priti Patel, who tweeted a video explaining what this “world-first migration partnership” will mean. Not only will it “set a new standard for managing migration” and “break the business model of people-smuggling gangs”, but it will also “help fix the broken asylum system” by having Rwanda “process asylum claims of those making dangerous, illegal or unnecessary journeys to the UK”.
Apparently, asylum seekers ultimately deemed by Rwanda to have legitimately journeyed dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily to the UK will then be allowed to live in, um, Rwanda – where, as the BBC points out, the UK has “demanded investigations into alleged killings, disappearances and torture” while also expressing concern over the overall “human rights record” of the current Rwandan government and President Paul Kagame. How is that for a “business model”?
And while the global asylum system is certainly “broken”, the way to fix it is not by dismantling the very concept of asylum or offshoring migrant abuse in contravention of international law.
Nor is the UK-Rwandan “world-first migration partnership” as entirely groundbreaking as it purports to be, having been openly inspired by contemporary Australian offshore detention activities on the island nation of Nauru as well as Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island – which have served as Petri dishes for migrant suicide, self-harm, and general suffering. Human Rights Watch furthermore notes the “exorbitant” expense that has attended Australian state brutality: “Detaining a single asylum seeker on Papua New Guinea or Nauru cost around AUD $3.4 million (£1.8 million) annually”.
To be sure, this figure would seem to rather neatly obliterate the official UK argument that the whole Rwanda operation will somehow save British taxpayers’ money. But, hey, there is nothing like a good Migrant Menace to distract from domestic embarrassments like the busting of Prime Minister Boris Johnson for coronavirus lockdown violations, otherwise known as the “Partygate” scandal – speaking of things “dangerous, illegal or unnecessary”.
Meanwhile, the United States has also offered plenty of asylum-eviscerating precedents – as in the case of the Trump administration’s so-called “safe third country agreement” with Guatemala, which enabled the US to deport asylum seekers to a country that was itself not at all safe and a significant source of refugees in the first place. Then there is the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) programme, reactivated by Joe Biden, which basically consists of forcing vulnerable migrants to risk their lives waiting in Mexico – another prominent source of refugees – for their asylum claims to be processed in the US.
Rwanda, of course, has produced its own fair share of refugees – and yet expelling tens of thousands of asylum seekers to the landlocked country is, according to Prime Minister Johnson, “the morally right thing to do and the humane and compassionate thing to do”, because it will disrupt the enterprising efforts of “vile people smugglers” who have converted the ocean into a “watery graveyard”.
Never mind that the ocean has only achieved graveyard status thanks to the criminalisation of migration wrought by the world’s enterprisingly xenophobic powers that be – or that the UK has contributed in no small part to converting much of the world beyond the ocean into a graveyard, while also cultivating the landscapes of persecution and tyranny that cause people to migrate.
History and reality notwithstanding, Home Secretary Patel proclaimed in Kigali that “our New Plan for Immigration will improve support for those directly fleeing oppression, persecution and tyranny”. She also insisted that “access to the UK’s asylum system must be based on need, not on the ability to pay people smugglers” – as though the two scenarios are mutually exclusive, and as though someone who sells everything they own in order to scrape together enough money to flee a country in the direction of perceived safety is somehow not in “need”.
For his part, Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart is quoted in the Guardian describing the Rwanda deal as aiming to “improve the chances for people who have crossed half the world at huge emotional and personal and financial expense”. And what better way to improve those chances than by making them cross half the world again? “We pride ourselves on this ‘nation of sanctuary’ label”, Hart declared in reference to the UK – because obviously nothing says “nation of sanctuary” like one oppressive state disgorging thousands of people into another oppressive state 4,000 miles away.
And while Johnson contends that he is seeking to combat the “barbaric trade in human misery” being waged by human smugglers in the English Channel, the UK is guilty of the same and much more – and it is all getting ever more darkly bonkers.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.