The curious case of Rwanda

1.75 lakh asylum seekers await a decision on their applications

In 2016, just before the Brexit referendum, a South Asian immigrant in the British Midlands was asked for his views. He was fervently in favour of Brexit. Too many bloody foreigners coming in, he said, without a touch of irony. The ingrained reaction of an immigrant: let me in and then shut the door? Or the zeal of a new convert, or simply, internalised racism? Whatever you call it, the same tendencies characterise the anti-immigrant stance of three British politicians with immigrant backgrounds: Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman and the earlier home secretary, Priti Patel. This zeal came to a frothing head in the Rwanda Plan, which fortunately has been struck down by the UK Supreme Court.

The Plan’s journey makes bizarre reading. Boris Johnson, under pressure to take a hard line on migrants—many from conflict zones—coming across the Channel in small boats in thousands, decided to throw money at the problem: pay another country to accept the unwashed, unwanted masses. This would relieve Britain’s overloaded asylum system and theoretically serve as a deterrent to migrants. Patel rolled up her sleeves and got down to it. Lists of potential partners who were signatories to the UN refugee convention and showed compliance with human rights laws, were drawn up; Rwanda, with its dismal human rights record and repressive governance, was an unlikely candidate. However, in the end, Rwanda it was. Johnson declared, with habitual disregard for facts, that Rwanda was “one of the safest countries in the world, globally recognised for its record on welcoming and integrating migrants.” Besides, the Rwandans were good chaps: they had joined the Commonwealth, hadn’t they, without having been a British colony? Potential deportees were handed fact-sheets that described their new home as “a land of a thousand hills… home to a wide array of wildlife,” a tourist brochure line that sounded utterly cynical in this context.

Imaging: Bhaskaran Imaging: Bhaskaran

The facts, as is their habit, spoke for themselves: Rwanda had earlier fouled up a similar deal with Israel under which it had accepted several thousand Eritrean refugees that Israel turned out; many of the refugees were later expelled from Rwanda, some were killed in Libya and others drowned in the Mediterranean in attempts to reach Europe. Besides, Rwanda’s asylum system was untested, insufficiently serviced by lawyers and interpreters, and seen as discriminatory and arbitrary. Much of this ugly reality was ignored, or doctored, as Sunak made stopping the small boats a top priority; Braverman, went further than Patel, making deportation not a possibility, but a duty. She was also given to strange dreams—“…a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” All this was to please the Tory right-wing, and the devil take the hindmost.

Last week the Supreme Court called the government’s bluff. It ruled that Rwanda, on the basis of all evidence, was an unsafe country for asylum seekers; they would be in danger of being sent back to their home countries to face persecution. If the Plan were to go ahead, the UK would be in violation of not only the European Convention of Human Rights (which Braverman would rather leave yesterday) but several other international treaties, besides the principles of natural justice. Sunak has not given up: no doubt putting in a 70-hour week, he intends to make Rwanda safe through a treaty and push through legislation that would obviate any legal challenges. All this is right-wing pie-in-the-sky, a desperate populist stance intended to shift the blame for a failed immigration policy from 10 Downing’s doorstep. Meanwhile, 1.75 lakh asylum seekers await an initial decision on their applications. And Rwanda is richer by £140 million.

Navtej Sarna is former high commissioner to the UK and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.