News & Analysis

The Rwanda deportations: a ‘world leading’ attack on refugee rights

28 June 2022
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By KD Tait

A LAST MINUTE ruling by judges at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) grounded the first flight that had been due to deport eight asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has vowed to press ahead with new flights, despite mounting disquiet about the policy from such establishment luminaries as the Anglican bishops and Prince of Wales. While the cancellation of the inaugural flight is an important victory, the ruling — that deportations should be suspended pending the outcome of a judicial review in July — has resulted in the government opening another front in its attack on democratic rights by threatening to withdraw from the ECHR itself.

The policy, which has so far cost £500,000, with a further £120 million allocated for the five year ‘trial plan’, will see refugees who arrive in the UK by ‘illegal’ means (for example, as stowaways or on small boats) denied the right to claim asylum here and instead deported on a one-way flight to Rwanda, which will then decide whether or not to grant them asylum there.

The UK government claims Rwanda is a safe destination. In reality, the country is a one-party dictatorship, ruled since the end of 1994 genocide by Paul Kagame with the aid of rigged elections, persecution and assassination of opponents — and complicity from his Western partners, who hold up the country as an oasis of peace and development in a region wracked by civil war and poverty. 

Yet in 2020, the last year for which figures are available, 2,229 Rwandans applied for asylum in other countries. Seventeen of these applications were made in the UK, of which 13 were accepted. The country is rated ‘Not Free’, scoring 22/100 on the latest Freedom House country report. It is placed 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

It is unsurprising therefore that one deportee said he had thought of taking his own life rather than be put on the plane. Another said: ‘I have a son here in the UK, but if I’m sent to Rwanda I will not be able to see him. I always thought there was justice here but I have found no justice in this country.’

Safe and legal?
The sharp rise in channel crossings has two causes. One is the overall increase in number of refugees entering Europe, fleeing wars in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, for most of which Britain bears a large share of responsibility.

But it was the hostile environment policies pioneered under former Home Secretary Theresa May, who poured tens of millions of pounds into closing safer modes of entry on lorries and ferries, which forced people into making the even more dangerous crossing over the channel. Instead of deterring refugees, or providing safe entry, the government’s policies are contributing to the proliferation of smuggling via increasingly dangerous routes.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel cynically claim asylum seekers should use ‘safe and legal’ routes. But there is no way to make a claim for asylum from a different country — it must be made in Britain. In any case, it is not illegal for asylum seekers to enter Britain by unofficial, ‘illegal’ means. Article 31 of the UN Refugee convention, an international treaty to which the UK is a signatory, states that a person cannot be penalised for entering a country illegally in order to seek asylum.

The government could make it possible for refugees to register claims for asylum in Calais, or at its foreign consulates, or provide visa-free travel to the UK for asylum seekers — but it won’t. Instead for years, Tory (and before them Labour) governments have obsessively promoted the myth of the ‘bogus’ or ‘illegal’ asylum seeker.

This vindictive campaign culminated in Patel’s Nationality and Borders Act which forms the legal basis for the Rwanda policy. It replaces EU rules on processing asylum claims (the Dublin Regulations) with new rules allowing the Home Office to decide a claim is inadmissible if a refugee passed through a safe third country to get to the UK. They can then be deported to a ‘safe’ third country willing to accept them. Furthermore, it makes it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally, i.e. without a visa, or to provide assistance to a person doing so.

In other words, we have made it almost impossible for refugees to arrive legally and passed a law automatically criminalising those who don’t. We have a two-tier system, in which the internationally recognised human right to claim asylum has become a privilege that can be given and taken away, depending on whether a refugee’s background is compatible with the government’s international priorities and domestic prejudices.

Tighter border controls are effectively the only tangible policy that the government can tout as a ‘benefit of Brexit’. But the Home Office’s pathological obsession with keeping out refugees means it is literally incapable of helping even the miniscule number of those fortunate enough to be deemed worthy. Thousands of Afghans eligible for resettlement following NATO’s defeat by the Taliban remain trapped in the country. Fully half of Ukrainians granted refugee visas have not arrived. Hundreds of those already here have been left homeless following breakdowns in relations with their ‘hosts’.

World leading
Foreign secretary Liz Truss boasts that this scheme is ‘world leading’. It is certainly unrivalled in its disregard for Britain’s international obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, but it is not without precedent.

After the EU started providing material and financial assistance to the Libyan coastguard to prevent refugees crossing the Mediterranean, the number of refugees detained in the country, with no access to legal defence or an asylum system, soared. The UN was forced to intervene following reports of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, slavery and torture.

A 2019 deal between Rwanda, the African Union, and the UNHCR allowed for the relocation of refugees in Libyan detention centres to Gashora, a ‘transit centre’ in Rwanda. Hundreds have been transferred, supposedly in preparation for resettlement to their preferred destination, but in reality many face the prospect of years marooned in a country that already hosts 130,000 refugees.

One area where Britain is certainly not world leading is in the number of refugees it hosts, and the treatment asylum seekers are subjected to, despite the fact that the vast majority of those entering Britain ‘illegally’ are genuine victims of war and persecution.

Three quarters of initial asylum claims are granted, with many more granted on appeal, but the process can take years. During this time, they are not allowed to work and provided with less than £6 per day to live on. In contrast Sweden has no restrictions on the right to work, and many other EU countries apply restrictions for a maximum of six months. Over 1,000 refugees, including children are held against their will in appalling conditions in detention centres — some indefinitely — despite having been convicted of no crime.

Nor are we being ‘swamped’ by refugees. Britain hosts only around 1% of the world’s total refugee population. 86% of refugees remain in a neighbouring country, overwhelmingly in the Global South. The 55,000 asylum applications received last year is well below the 84,000 peak in 2002 and represents a fraction of total net migration which remains in the hundreds of thousands.

Behind the attacks
So why are hard-faced ministers deporting people who have been tortured or seen their families murdered, and homes destroyed. Why are they called “bogus” or “illegal” before anyone has even considered their claims? Why are they asked for legal documentation from states that have driven them out with nothing but the clothes on their backs?   

Turning the humanitarian emergency of refugee crossings into a law and order campaign generates support for a government trying to distract from its mistakes by returning to the winning formula of the Brexit campaign: posing as defenders of British sovereignty against European judges, and British workers against foreign migrants.

The intervention of the European Court of Human rights — which is distinct from the European Union — is grist to the mill of this campaign to keep the Tories’ 2019 Brexit coalition together by claiming the government is ‘taking back control’ from meddling European judges and politicians.

The cynicism involved is starkly illustrated by government ministers claiming to be upholding the independence of the British judiciary. It was only in 2019 that these same judges were being denounced as ‘enemies of the people’ for blocking Johnson’s attempt to illegally prorogue parliament.

Now the government is whipping up a campaign against so-called ‘leftie lawyers’ providing refugees with their legal right to representation in court and challenging attempts to deport them. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. While the media clamours for refugees to be denied legal representation, cuts to legal aid mean British citizens who can’t afford a solicitor face the prospect of having no-one to defend them in court against criminal charges.

Attacking rights might start with refugees, but once the principle of universal rights is corroded and made conditional, it can quickly be applied to other less powerful sections of society. From refugees, to criminals, to those charged but not convicted and so on. The repeal of Roe v Wade shows how quickly even apparently fundamental rights can be overturned by the rising tide of reaction. 

Labour
A handful of left-wing Labour MPs have condemned the Rwanda policy for what it is: a racist distraction from the government’s catastrophic handling of the pandemic and cost of living crisis.

But what about the Labour leadership? It opposes the policy on the grounds that it is expensive and inefficient. Does this mean Labour supports deporting asylum seekers without considering their claims? Will a Labour government scrap the policy — along with the plethora of racist asylum laws introduced by successive Tory and Labour governments? We are not told.

Keir Starmer’s inability to denounce the policy as both racist and unjust, as morally wrong, sums up in a nutshell his leadership’s fundamental acceptance of Britain’s racist immigration laws.

Starmer is due to give a ‘major speech’ this Summer outlining his policy on asylum and immigration. Doubtless his advisers are busy corralling focus groups up and down the country to regurgitate the baseless myths and fears that working people are bombarded with daily by the reactionary media.

The one place it’s certain his speechwriters won’t be turning for inspiration is Labour Party policy itself: despite Momentum’s opposition, 2019 Conference committed the party to a progressive policy of open borders, scrapping hostile environment policies and closing the detention centres.

We await to see whether the promise made in his election campaign’s infamous ’10 pledges’ makes the cut: “Full voting rights for EU nationals. Defend free movement as we leave the EU. An immigration system based on compassion and dignity. End indefinite detention and call for the closure of centres such as Yarl’s Wood.”

Smash all immigration controls
Socialists must redouble their efforts to turn the tide against the torrent of lying propaganda against refugees and fight to expose the inherently racist nature of all controls on the free movement of workers. The arsenal of immigration law pits workers against each other and serves to conceal the bosses’ responsibility in Britain and internationally for the desperate plight of so many millions of people.

Such a fight against immigration controls must be waged with renewed energy in the organised working class, and the widest possible layers of the labour movement won to supporting asylum seekers against the slew of physical, legislative and ideological attacks. Against the cowardice of Labour, the way forward is shown by activists organising to resist raids and deportations from Glasgow to Peckham. The main civil service workers’ union, PCS, has opposed the Rwanda policy and its Home Office Group conference voted to condemn it.

We need to organise within the trade unions to make the government’s racist attacks unworkable: civil service, health, local government, education and transport workers’ unions must be won to a position of total non-cooperation with the racist hostile environment, Prevent, and deportation schemes.

Workers Power stands for:

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