UK government’s Rwanda plan was never about cutting migration

UK government’s Rwanda plan was never about cutting migration
The UK government's plan to send migrants to Rwanda was immoral, impractical, unfunded - and has now been found to have been illegal. But the policy's target was always a domestic audience, argues James Brownsell.
8 min read
24 Aug, 2023
In July, the Appeals Court in London ruled that the UK government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, writes James Brownsell. [GETTY]

Britain is in a mess. Catastrophic mismanagement of Brexit combined with appalling failures of government throughout the Covid crisis - thanks to a corrupt ruling party dominated by spivs and charlatans and reliant on outdated economics and its own increasingly rabid right wing - has left this country on its knees. Everything, everywhere, is crumbling. Any good, helpful or supportive element that remains of any public service owes its existence to a burnout-destined hardcore of public servants attempting to hold entire systems together with their bare hands.

And yet despite this tragic foundering, Britain's Conservative government has decided instead to focus its energies on reducing migration. In July, the Appeals Court in London ruled that the UK government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful. That came just days after the government's own legal assessment revealed it would cost £169,000 ($214,670) per person deported.

It was never going to happen. With more than 24,000 asylum seekers receiving notification of potential deportation in the past two years, was the Treasury suddenly going to green-light more than £4 billion ($5bn) to the Home Office to pay for it?

''The Conservatives believe it is easier to be cruel than kind. Being mean to foreigners is a staple of right-wing politics. It offers easy scapegoats to desperate voters so consumed by the struggle to get by in a failing economy that they can be manipulated into blaming people with zero power or influence over their lives. It is the last refuge of a hopeless government, determined to destroy hope in others.''

There is currently a backlog of 170,000 people waiting in limbo for an asylum decision - prohibited from working, and in constant fear of deportation. Aside from the obvious abhorrent cruelty of the policy, sending them all to Rwanda, as is the preferred option of some prominent Conservatives, would cost £28 billion ($36bn).

So why the rage and the fury directed at people who have survived harrowing journeys to make it to this country, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs? Because this administration is so morally destitute and electorally desperate it is more interested in fighting made-up "culture wars", entrenching divisions in our society, in order to shore up the votes of a racist, ruddy-faced, self-proclaimed "anti-woke" mob and weaponising hatred with no regard for the very real human suffering such rhetoric leaves in its wake.

Already, Suella Braverman - the home secretary and former attorney-general now planning to defy the courts - has said the justice system "is rigged against British people". It's not a dog whistle any more. She has admitted her plan is "more than 50 percent likely" to break human rights law.

The Appeals Court ruled the Rwanda plan violated the UK's commitments under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). Boris Johnson might have "got Brexit done", but like everything the Conservatives have touched in the past 13 years, it's a total shitshow, and the UK remains under the jurisdiction of the ECHR. Several ministers have proposed leaving. They're backed by seven out of ten Conservative activists, according to a poll undertaken by Conservative Home.

If it seems as if they never learn, it might be because they don't. The reason Brexit wasn't ever going to be simple was due to the unique position - political and geographic - of Northern Ireland. These Home County dunderheads have never bothered to learn about Northern Ireland, and they certainly haven't read the mere 36 pages of the Good Friday Agreement, which has largely kept the peace following decades of sectarian violence.


Key to this peace is the fact that the ECHR provides nationalists in Northern Ireland with an authority that supersedes Westminster's power. It is one of the central tenets of the Good Friday Agreement. The UK cannot just walk away from the ECHR, and few of those advocating such seem to have any interest in understanding anything about Northern Ireland - let alone the complexities behind 21st century migration.

Besides, the Conservatives need the ECHR. Braverman will appeal against the Appeals Court and try to revive the Rwanda plan at the UK Supreme Court. If they agree the policy is unlawful, Braverman's last course of appeal is, naturally, the ECHR. Irony certainly isn't dead.

The Tories' framing of the narrative, that those coming to the UK are - in Braverman's own words - "breaking our laws, they are abusing the generosity of the British people" is so monstrous that anyone with a shred of decency in this country should be speaking out.

And Braverman isn't an outlier in government, more's the pity. If anything, her stock is rising, thanks to the latest idiotic intervention from a party faction oxymoronically dubbed the "New Conservatives".

The New Conservatives are a cabal of 25 mostly junior MPs elected in 2019 - among them is party deputy chairman Lee Anderson, whose tone deafness towards the cost of eating healthily for those struggling earned him the nickname "30p Lee", and who also proposed that "nuisance" social housing tenants should be evicted to tents and forced to pick fruit in what can only be described as labour camps.

These are the people who said they were not undermining Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when they launched their own manifesto at the time of the Appeal Court ruling. It may come as little surprise to learn that all ten points are aimed at making life harder for immigrants. They want temporary visa schemes terminated for care workers, a raise in the income threshold for skilled work visas, the "student dependant route" closed, international students booted out of the country after graduation, a reduction in those granted places under humanitarian schemes - and a cap in social housing for non-UK nationals.

The New Conservatives may sound a lot like the old Conservatives. Their demands will bolster Braverman's position in her long-running arguments with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who believes Britain must be "pragmatic" and let in more foreign workers to boost the economy. 

Their manifesto also calls attention to how Sunak is struggling to meet his ill-advised pledge to "stop the boats", another nonsense Conservative assurance. It should be noted that Labour, ostensibly the left-wing opposition, is absolutely nowhere on this. If anything, the party only attacks the Tories from the right - noting their failure to implement harsh enough policies, with Labour leader Keir Starmer going on the offensive against Sunak for "having lost control of our borders".

It seems the Conservative plan to reduce migration boils down to making this country such an unpleasant place in which to live that no-one wants to come here. Migration is not a crime, and criminalising migrants is self-destructive, while enriching real criminals. If people arriving in Britain are prevented from accessing modern slavery legislation, as has been proposed by Sunak himself, exactly who does that benefit?
If we take the brightest young minds from around the world, and give them the world-beating education for which our universities have been known for centuries, surely we want them to stay and benefit our knowledge-driven economy of the future? What sense does it make for our government to send them back to drive forward some other country's economy? Who knows what talent we are missing out on?

And while this "human resources" argument holds water, the larger point remains: that such a cruel, inhumane and immoral policy should never have been proposed in the first place.

Britain was the lead nation before the Second World War of the kindertransport, in which more than 10,000 Jewish children were rescued from Nazi Germany and given homes and lives and safety. How members of Parliament can commute past the statues and memorials at several train stations in London and around the UK in honour of that programme - and then support the latest Conservative proposals - is beyond my comprehension.

Lord Alf Dubs, himself a former kindertransport child, said the legislation would do nothing to tackle the horrors of those drowning in the English Channel. "It's a nasty bill and it won't work," he wrote in The Guardian.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick has upped the stakes in the Conservatives' performative cruelty cabaret, ordering that murals of Disney characters be painted over at an asylum centre in Kent. He also decreed that brightly coloured multilingual "Welcome" signs be removed in order to better create a "law enforcement environment" for the children there.

The Conservatives believe it is easier to be cruel than kind. Being mean to foreigners is a staple of right-wing politics. It offers easy scapegoats to desperate voters so consumed by the struggle to get by in a failing economy that they can be manipulated into blaming people with zero power or influence over their lives. It is the last refuge of a hopeless government, determined to destroy hope in others.

The Conservatives know they will lose the next election, and are gambling their legacy that by blaming "lefty lawyers" and "activist judges" (for upholding the law), they can drive enough of a wedge through our society that they can at least hang on to the votes of the very worst of us Britons.

Britain is not full. Anyone taking a train journey here can see that. Yes, most of us are struggling, one way or another, but it is up to each of us to counter those saying our troubles are the fault of immigrants. Immigrants haven't been in power in this country for the past 13 years - that'd be the Tories.

Getting the Conservatives out of office won't solve all of our problems and automatically restore economic and social justice.

But it would be a start.

James Brownsell was formerly managing editor of The New Arab and Europe editor at Al Jazeera English.

Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.