This week the government of the United Kingdom has spent most of its energy putting forward and defending a new bill which it says will enable the deportation of illegal immigrants to Rwanda.
Labour do not back the plan, Yvette Cooper has said the Party will “replace” the scheme, but what exactly is it? Why has it proved controversial? What is likely to happen now, and what might it mean come the general election?
The Cameron government introduced a target to get net migration below +100,000 people a year. This was retained, and not met, by every Conservative administration until Boris Johnson. Recognising the difficulties his predecessors have had, he replaced the target with vague promise to bring “overall” numbers “down” and brought forward the Rwanda plan in April 2022.
Boris is of course now gone, but the consistent failure of any of these administrations to achieve their migration goal haunts Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives as they search for some kind of record to defend ahead of the next election.
This became more urgent in November this year, as it was announced that net migration for the 12 months up to June 2023 was +672,000 people, and the figure for 2022 was revised up – to +745,000.
This is a gigantic increase on what the government was already claiming was too much migration. Net migration steadily rose from virtually none in the early nineties to +349,000 by 2004. Since then, it has fluctuated with the average for the 2004-2020 period being +284,000. Essentially Sunak has presided over a more than doubling of the numbers. Rwanda is his totemic policy to show he is serious about rectifying this situation.
The stated goal of the Rwanda plan is deterrence, and it specifically targets asylum seekers rather than economic migrants.
It would mean any asylum seeker who has entered the country illegally – or legally from a ‘safe’ third country e.g France cannot apply for asylum in Britain but instead would be deported to Rwanda where their claim would be processed and, if found to be successful (i.e they are genuinely fleeing conflict or persecution) they would become refugees in Rwanda. Those not granted refugee status will be allowed to stay anyway.
The upshot of this is that, for example, an individual fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan who makes their way to Europe, crosses to Dover from Calais in a small boat, and has a legitimate claim to asylum, that claim is now the responsibility of the Rwandans and not the British. We will not even consider their claim. The government has ruled these claims are inadmissible due to the nature of they way they arrived here.
This ability to rule a claim inadmissible without considering the content of the claim itself is new. It arises from the UK having left the EU. The law codifying it requires a safe third country for the inadmissible person to be relocated to. This is where Rwanda comes in, and is the source of much of the controversy.
The government has faced two sorts of challenges in delivering their plan up to this point, initially legal challenges held them back and now increasingly the plan is becoming a political problem inside the Conservative Party.
In November 2023 the supreme court ruled that Rwanda is not a safe country. It is therefore an unacceptable place to relocate inadmissible migrants. This seems primarily to be on the basis not that Rwanda itself is unsafe but that there are “substantial grounds” to believe the people deported to Rwanda would be passed by the Rwandans on to unsafe countries.
Something similar happened with a scheme run by Israel whereby asylum seekers were paid to ‘voluntarily’ go to Rwanda – or face prison. This scheme was quite different to the one proposed by our government (there was no provision for naturalisation of these people, as our government has negotiated) but it seems many of them were immediately taken out of the country and some (as in this account) then made their way to Europe.
The government’s solution, as we have seen this week, is to legislate that Rwanda is in fact a safe country – and prohibit decision makers from deciding otherwise. That is the content of the bill which is being brought forward next Tuesday.
Despite the noise, no court outside of the UK has yet ruled against the policy. What has happened is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) did intervene to stop people from being deported while a judicial review was carried out by the UK courts. The feeling among those pro the Rwanda plan is that by ruling Rwanda is a safe country when our own courts, and many international observers, do not agree, Britain will be in breach of its obligations to the European Convention of Human Rights – specifically in regard to the prevention of torture and ill treatment.
They anticipate a confrontation, and this is why the new bill seeks to ‘disapply’ certain aspects of both domestic and international human rights legislation.
Ironically the publication of the bill, which was supposed to ‘fix’ the legal issues, has opened up political ones. The new bill includes provisions for individuals to challenge their deportation to Rwanda on the grounds of safety. The Rwandans insisted on these, as they themselves do not want to be in breach of international human rights legislation (this would be likely to be bad for things like tourism and inward investment).
Unfortunately, the prospect that anyone might avoid being deported, even if they risked torture, was too much for some Conservative MPs – including immigration minister Robert Jenrick. He resigned publicly saying the bill “does not go far enough”. Many of the hard right of the Conservative Party feel the same and Mr Jenrick is competing with former Home Secretary Suella Braverman for their support in a future Conservative leadership contest.
Each is now seeking to damn the plan more dramatically than the other to prove that they are the true candidate of that wing of the party. There is now the real possibility that this awkward squad will not support the bill next week – and journalists are already trying to frame the vote as one of confidence in the government.
Despite what our courts think, it is possible Rwanda is safe. Their government has given assurances about the process asylum seekers will go through and agreed to various forms of oversight.
However it seems relatively obvious that a genuinely ‘safe’ country is unlikely to be much of deterrent. It is also clear from the Israeli example that there is a history of people smuggling from the nation. What is not hypothetical is that Rwanda is not the kind of country that global, democratic, liberal Britain should be holding up as a good example.
It has been a one party state since the end of the 1994 genocide, ruled by the same man, Paul Kagame, for that entire period (described as defacto leader until his first election in 2000). Elections are manipulated and opposition leaders jailed or killed.
Home Office civil servants have already flagged that there is no evidence that the deterrence element of the plan will work. Regardless, resettling all inadmissible asylum seekers in Rwanda would reduce the number of asylum seekers living in Britain and therefore contribute to Rishi Sunak’s aspiration to reduce net migration.
The odd thing about the energy which has been invested in this plan is that asylum seekers are a very small proportion of immigrants, 7.2% in 2022. Cutting into this figure will not do much to address the massive spike in net migration described at the start of this article. It is important to understand that it is not being driven by asylum seekers. In fact, according to the Migration observatory there are three main factors:
More international students. This is part of a deliberate plan to “increase the number of international students studying in the UK by more than 30%”. That the government does not want to draw attention to this rare case of a policy success is likely saddening to whoever devised it, but shows how confused and contradictory the Tories have become as they wrestle among themselves about what conservatism actually means.
An increase in people using humanitarian visa routes along with more refugees. This sounds like it would be affected by the Rwanda plan but the vast majority of these people – who remember have been legally granted asylum, they are not illegal immigrants – come as the result of the British government’s (correct) decision to open routes for Hong Kongers and Ukrainians. There is no appetite among the British public to send any of those people to Rwanda.
More skilled workers. People legally migrating to fill the seemingly ever-increasing gaps in the UK Labour Market.
Sunak’s steps on minimum salary levels and dependents announced earlier this week are likely to be far more impactful on these factors – though of course they run contra to the needs of the economy.
The point of the policy then is not its effect on the net migration numbers that Rishi Sunak wants to get down. The point is the signal it sends. YouGov polling suggests it is a highly divisive policy with more people strongly for or against than in the middle. Support is strongest among current Conservative voters and people in the C2DE social grade used by pollsters to refer to people in the bottom half of the economic groups in the UK by income. It is therefore a pitch to the Conservative base, the ‘red wall’, and an attempt to open up dividing lines with Labour. If anyone does ever find themselves resettled in Rwanda they will be there as collateral damage of a political play, rather than as the outcome of an evidence based policy process designed to achieve lower migration.
While it is obviously grotesque to make asylum seekers unwitting pawns in a political game, nevertheless the game is on. Labour and the Conservatives are competing head to head in many seats where the Rwanda plan is most likely to receive a positive reception. It will be necessary for the Party to put forwards a credible alternative.
What form this takes is unclear. There should be no desire to ape the Tories ineffective and inhumane policy but there is a clear desire among voters for greater control of immigration. The widespread conflation of migration with asylum will not stop at the next election either.
Labour should look to what drives support for the Rwanda plan as it formulates its alternative. Support for this policy is rooted in the belief that the British government simply cannot control migration. It is a problem that has be relocated thousands of miles away because we cannot tackle it here.
Our Party should remind people that this is false. Labour are cultivating an image of competency and dedication to public service. We can run the migration and asylum systems far more effectively than the Conservatives have done. We will not need to involve countries like Rwanda and frankly exporting our problems in that way is weak and un-British.
Reassuring voters that we are serious will have to include measures which many Labour supporters and activists do not like. We should stress our commitment to prompt removal for failed asylum seekers, to arresting criminal gang leaders and collaborating with the French to stop the small boats crisis.
But by the same token we must also stress our commitment to proper integration, support for citizenship and endorsement of the contribution that migrants make to British life. There is a route to a humane system that the British Public can have confidence in, a route that involves no gimmicks like this Rwanda plan but instead the hard yards of convincing voters that we can be trusted.
To read more on migration policy, see Polls say Labour can win on immigration.