In the middle of April, the United Kingdom announced that it had struck a deal with Rwanda to fly asylum seekers there. Those whose claims are then approved will get stay in the country. The operation will be funded by the UK. The two countries framed the deal as a deterrent to further migrant crossings of the English Channel and the people smugglers behind them.
Details of the plan are still scarce. Nevertheless, the news sparked strident protest from the usual suspects. Major mainstream media sites, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post editorialised strongly against it. The Guardian even went as far as to dig up and lampoon the details of a Kigali guest house being considered as potential accommodation for the removed refugees.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, panned the deal in his Easter address, stating that it is “against the judgment of God.” The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, made its disapproval known. Even the top civil servant in the UK’s Home Office refused to sign off on the plan, observing that it couldn’t be provably connected to its stated goal of deterring further arrivals. His boss, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, had to issue a ministerial direction to clear it.
For what it’s worth, the plan is unlikely to go into action.
The first indicator of this is that it was announced prematurely, with barely a mention of the most important details, and before the law enabling it had even been passed. Many commentators have suggested that the announcement was probably a ploy by the government to test and energise its anti-migration base, rather than a sign of real intent.
Rwanda, the other party to the deal, also presents several issues. The country is run by a dictator and has a lacklustre human rights record which, ironically, the British government has repeatedly criticised. In fact, Rwanda wasn’t Britain’s first choice as a partner; Ghana and Kenya were both approached but, because their governments are somewhat answerable to citizens, both declined.
Additionally, Rwanda isn’t the most cosmopolitan country in the world. As a result, it can practically host only Sub-Saharan African migrants, a minority among Channel crossers. This hasn’t been acknowledged as part of the plan, but it makes sense, even to the migrants themselves. In any case, racially profiling and then deporting black migrants, or merely appearing to do so, isn’t a road the UK government can sanely go down.
Finally, various groups have lodged a volley of lawsuits challenging the legality of the deal. According to the prime minister’s spokesman in early May, the litigation has pushed the plan’s implementation back by several months.
As if in response, there was a surge in Channel crossings. In short, the plan seems to be dead in the water. The United Kingdom is unlikely to ever fly migrants to Rwanda.
Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious that this impending failure is a win for the rights of migrants, as many refugee advocacy groups and other critics might argue. At the very best, it is a band-aid over a festering wound. At the worst, it continues to abet one of the most sordid business ventures of our era.
After all, the cartels that run illegal migration will remain intact and largely out of the reach of law enforcement. It is they, not the UK government, who callously send men, women, and children into the sea on flimsy boats and stuff them into airtight refrigerated lorries, periodically resulting in grisly disasters.
Unlike governments, they have no electorate to answer to, and no lawsuits to battle in court. Corpses, scars and slaves litter the perilous route along which they conduct migrants from their faraway homes. Their main concern is the exorbitant fees they charge for their services, not the rights of their clients. And, for as long as they have a market of desperate migrants and porous borders to sell, they’ll stay in business.
To be fair, opponents of the Rwanda-UK migrant deal aren’t exactly starry-eyed about this aspect of illegal migration. None of them has come out in roaring support of the trafficking business. However, it seems as if, to them, this issue is marginal to the conversation.
The main problem, they argue, is that the UK government is sluggish in processing asylum applications, which aren’t that many by European standards, and the pile-up in the system gives an erroneous picture about the country’s migrant problem. I think this assessment is fair. I’ve written disparagingly before about the UK’s refugee policy, which is markedly stingy even without deporting migrants.
However, to focus solely on this aspect of the matter, while ignoring the crimes of traffickers, along with the incentives that drive their trade, is naïve. The government is not the only factor in this equation, after all, and it is hardly the most malevolent. If anything, it is the only player that can be checked. The deportation plan might seem inhumane, but the trafficking business surely is.
All this is to say that there is no elegant solution to the problem of mass migration. On the one hand, countries have borders, and they must protect them if they are to continue existing as sovereign nation-states. On the other hand, no one can deny that there will always be people who leave their countries, willingly or not, but cannot avail themselves of official channels, and so must cross borders illegally.
In the midst of all this, one must consider the question of how to integrate migrants into new countries; the fact that it is cheaper to take care of migrants in developing countries than in the developed world; the fact that traffickers select for migrants who can afford to pay them, which means those who make it to another country aren’t always those most in need; and many other factors of this kind.
Any attempt to solve the problem of illegal migration will be imperfect. It is for this reason that I do not presume to propose a solution to the UK migrant situation, or even to have a strong opinion about the proposal to offshore migrants to Rwanda. If the storm-tossed English Channel, which has kept out invaders since 1066 AD, isn’t enough to hold back migrants, who am I to solve this problem?
What I can propose is level-headedness. The swift opposition which met the announcement of the deportation plan is more a sign of political polarisation than of a genuine concern for the rights of migrants. If it were the latter, there would have been something in it condemning traffickers as well.