The UK, straddling an archipelago off the northwestern coast of Europe, is a difficult and distant place for refugees to reach. Compared to its neighbours, it takes relatively few. But the “small boats” pitching up on its beaches, which brought at least 28,500 people seeking asylum to England last year, have become a political headache. They are a symbol of state powerlessness for Boris Johnson’s government.
The government’s proposed solution is execrable. Priti Patel, the home secretary, intends to separate out single people travelling alone via what the government (wrongly) calls “illegal” routes — mostly the small boats. Some of this group will be dispatched to Rwanda. And not just for the processing of their asylum claims — but for life.
People seeking asylum through such routes must be in the grip of powerful pulls. It is not just that many take dangerous routes. Once they arrive, they are willing, as it is, to live in dismal conditions while their applications are processed. They are banned from working, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.
This set of deterrents has clearly not proved enough, so the government is escalating them. In addition to sending some people to Kigali, the removal policy will deter families who would otherwise come to Britain but fear that relatives not travelling with them will not be able to join them in future.
This seems particularly cruel given that family ties are among the commonest reasons why people are braving the cold waters of the English Channel. The former imperial centre is a land of many diasporas.
To the extent this policy works, it will do so by being abhorrent. This is, of course, not how Britain is selling it. The government is, as part of this plan, giving the African nation £120mn in aid. Unveiling the deal, the government said Rwanda would offer “a new and prosperous life in one of the fastest-growing economies”.
This is not the UK’s normal position on Rwanda; London has asked the country to conduct “transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”. The fate of many people seeking sanctuary in Britain will be left to Rwandan law.
The Channel crossings in small boats are a real problem: people are routinely lost to the terrifying waves. Last November, 27 people died in one disaster. The demand for the people smugglers is a reflection of the difficulty of arriving by what the government refers to as “legal” routes. Except for those from approved categories of needy people — notably, Ukrainians and Afghans — the government has made it difficult to seek asylum in ways that do not now risk a one-way ticket to Rwanda. Britain is in effect closing itself to many groups.
If the government were serious about tackling the little boats, it would work with France to build proper processing centres on the far side of the Channel. It would open legal corridors to the UK — and from other places, too. Britain should do better at helping people come straight from refugee camps.
Alongside that, the UK should work with its neighbours — not just France, but also the low countries and Germany — to crack down on trafficking. As part of that agreement, it could seek the right to return would-be asylum seekers who have passed through another EU state back to that country, a right Britain lost after leaving the EU. Britain should work with its European counterparts to fulfil its moral obligations towards refugees, rather than going out of its way to avoid them.