Government plan to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda already failing and likely to backfire further

Yesterday, The Times reported that the government’s plan to start sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was months away from implementation. Two things are worth noting from the report.

First, a number of legal challenges have been brought against the plans. Boris Johnson has claimed that these legal actions have emboldened asylum seekers making crossings over the channel. He suggested that the delays to Rwandan flights mean that more people have crossed and it is too early to say whether the approach the government is seeking to take will actually work.

Legal actions were always going to follow because – as I have noted before – there is no legal requirement to claim asylum in the first “safe country”. Indeed, the 1951 Refugee Convention recognises the right to seek asylum in any country and acknowledges that access to them might be by ‘irregular means’. What is more, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (Article 14) imposes a duty on countries to accept those seeking safe refuge. There is a clear case to be made that the plan to offshore asylum seekers to Rwanda is illegal. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the 1951 Convention and Declaration on Human Rights would know this was inevitable.

This was all the more obviously going to happen when the government announced the plan was going to be retroactive. Even if the Rwanda plan was not potentially illegal of itself anyway, the government intended to apply it to those who arrived here before any annoucement had been made. The idea that this would not be challenged by lawyers whose clients are already here but are now being threatened with deportation to a third country despite having arrived prior to any such threat is just incredible. You have to be a special kind of stupid not to recognise that would happen.

The claim that putting off the flights to Rwanda has emboldened some is also deeply unlikely. When the plans were first announced, many of those waiting in Calais insisted the announcement made no difference to their plans to cross to the UK. As I noted here, the only difference it might make is to whether they will actually claim asylum when they arrive or if the threat to send them to Rwanda makes it that much more likely they will simply go underground upon arrival. The only stoppage to the crossings came about because of poor weather conditions. It has been widely reported that crossing have begun again. This suggests the announcement has made zero difference as previously argued.

Indeed, there is an assumption that everybody knows about the announcement at any rate. Many probably won’t. Of those that do, Pierre-Henri Dumont – the French MP for Calais – said there was evidence that people smuggler gangs were encouraging more migrants to make the journey by claiming they must get to Britain before the Rwanda policy comes into effect. The government insists it is applying the policy to arrivals in the UK from 1st January, but there is no evidence the message is breaking through. Dumont went on to suggest that the policy is likely to encourage people to take longer, more dangerous routes to the UK to avoid detection leading to further deaths.

If only someone, somewhere had said these things before. If only the government had actually spoken to people working with asylum seekers to understand the issues at play. If only they were concerned about the loss of life, the danger of crossing and the realities of life for those seeking refuge rather than political expediency to a certain section of their support base. If only they had considered how the ludicrous economic impact of this policy will upset and entirely different (though no doubt overlapping) section of their support base too. As one of their former cabinet ministers said about the announcement, ‘it would be cheaper to put every asylum seeker who gets here up in the Ritz’. Aside from the obvious moral and humanitarian issues at stake, it doesn’t even make economic sense. Which suggests the plan will manage to please nobody except the most virulently xenophobic and racist elements for whom no amount of money is unacceptable in ensuring foreigners – no matter how desperate or legitimately legal they are – can actually get here.

Rather than fight the legal challenges, the government would do well to accept that they have made a grave error of judgement and rescind the policy. They are implementing an illegal plan that shirks our legal duties to vulnerable people. The plan will almost certainly backfire and lead to more people arriving and not claiming asylum, instead choosing to go underground where they cannot be easily detected. It will also lead to more deaths as people seek to find other, longer and more dangerous routes to cross to the UK. It is better to U-turn on this now before matters get much worse.