How many of those seeking asylum in Britain will be sent to Rwanda instead? Nobody can be sure. The final number could be zero, or there could be a couple of plane-loads of people sent to East Africa just in time for the next General Election.
There are an enormous number of legal, financial and practical hurdles to overcome to turn the government’s ‘offshoring’ idea into a practical plan. It has not yet passed its borders bill, with the Lords opposed to offshoring. Government sources briefed that the army will meet asylum seekers and drive them straight to the airport, which will probably come as a surprise to the Ministry of Defence. Soldiers have no legal authority to play that taxi-driving and detention role.
The £120 million cost is a significant underestimate. As David Davis MP has pointed out, offshoring cost Australia a staggering £1.4 million for each of the 3,000 asylum-seekers taken to Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
Of course, these practical questions are secondary to the principle of whether this is an ethical way to treat people seeking asylum.
The Prime Minister says that the majority of those crossing the Channel are economic migrants, not refugees. He has not given a source for this claim, but his own government’s data suggest that is is false. Last year, when more people claiming asylum came across the Channel than ever before, asylum acceptance rates were the highest they have been for many years, rising to 72% being accepted on first decision. (The figure rises on appeals, where 48% succeed). The acceptance rates are higher still for people coming from those countries from which most people are fleeing: 81% from Afghanistan, 89% from Iran, 96% from Sudan, 97% from Eritrea and 99% from Syria.
If the government considers offshoring for asylum seekers from these nationalities, it should be clear that it is going to be overwhelmingly sending what it would call “genuine refugees” to Rwanda.
Those who oppose the government’s plans need solutions as well as critiques of why the government’s plan won’t work.
The dangerous journeys across the English Channel are nobody’s idea of a well- managed asylum system. The more effective solutions are also more boring than the performative gestures that grab front-page headlines. Making asylum manageable again means the British and French governments getting beyond the blame game to cooperate on trafficking, and enabling people to make an asylum claim safely, including at British Embassies abroad where relevant. It means investing in an asylum system that can once again make decisions within six months, so refugees can get on with their lives in Britain. Agreements with other countries should also be sought to help enable safe returns for those whose claims fail.
This deal brings reputational risk to Rwanda too, putting its human rights record in the spotlight. The “visit Rwanda” slogans on the sleeves of Arsenal’s football team are part of Rwanda’s publicity drive to improve its reputation. Given that Arsenal has been part of the excellent Football Welcomes initiative, organised by Amnesty International, we might expect protests – and maybe pressure from the dressing room as well as the terraces – to rethink the club’s public links with Kigali.
People want an orderly, fair and humane system for asylum in this country. The road to Rwanda is not likely to deliver that balance of control and compassion – even if it has moved the political headlines on for one day.
This article originally appeared in the i paper.