Dumping refugees: Johnson’s latest attempt to save his political skin
Having lost the support of much of his own Conservative Party and narrowly survived a no-confidence vote, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now going all-out to appease his right-wing support base in the cause of his own political survival.
Hence his Home Secretary Priti Patel’s plan to dump migrants and asylum seekers in Rwanda, a scheme the UN denounced as incompatible with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Tiny, densely populated Rwanda “will have the capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people,” Johnson glibly predicted.
This policy was condemned by the opposition as “government by gimmick.” It’s difficult to imagine a more obscene abuse of power than gratuitously traumatizing those who have already suffered torture, civil war, the murder of family members, and state-sponsored violence — merely to score political points.
Rwanda’s abysmal human rights record includes assassinations and torture. Twelve refugees were shot dead in 2018 for protesting against cuts to food rations. Rogue states such as Iran and Syria could deploy assassination squads to Kigali to murder those seeking refuge from their brutal regimes. One Iranian refugee due to fly to Rwanda compared his journey to the airbase with being led to his execution.
Rwanda lacks that capacity to process large numbers of asylum applications or address issues faced by vulnerable and suffering refugees; Britain’s Home Office alone has an annual budget about five times that of the Rwandan state. Nevertheless, the policy grants Rwanda inconceivable power over Britain’s immigration policies, with de facto ability to deport or mistreat those on its own soil. Rwanda is a major player in the regionalized Congo conflict, and thus cannot be considered a disinterested party for many African refugees.
Massive hypocrisy is on display as European states roll out red carpets for Ukrainian refugees, while those fleeing violence in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan are subjected to the worst abuses Western governments can get away with. In its ceaseless efforts to make Britain a “hostile environment” for arrivals from undesirable parts of the world, the government is also moving forward with a plan to criminalize asylum seekers by forcing them to wear electronic tags. There is currently no problem with refugees on the run; this is a headline-grabbing attempt to stigmatize those seeking refuge.
This shameful Rwanda scheme will cost at least £120 million over five years, and the bill will mushroom amid spiralling legal expenses. Guantanamo Bay similarly looked like a cheap and unaccountable loophole in international law, but costs $540 million a year to run —an astonishing $13 million per prisoner.
Britain will likewise discover that hidden costs such as oversight, education, healthcare, and legal obligations will render the project a colossal millstone around the government’s neck, at a time when Brexit, Ukraine and soaring inflation are having a ruinous impact on Britain’s economy.
Johnson’s motivations were never financial. Keeping out undesirable foreigners has long been a priority for reactionary elements of the Conservative party. Just as Donald Trump’s “big and beautiful” wall symbolized zero tolerance of immigration, Johnson and Patel’s wheeze is to dump refugees in the most unappealing location imaginable and thus deter anybody from wanting to come to the UK. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss hubristically pledged to “break the business model of people traffickers”.
Johnson’s motivations were never financial. Keeping out undesirable foreigners has long been a priority for reactionary elements of the Conservative party.
By last week, however, the policy had descended into farce. Officials boasted that 130 refugees would board the first flight to Kigali, but after challenges in British courts, only seven asylum seekers were transferred to a Boeing 767, hired for £500,000! Such is the contempt in which the Rwanda policy is held that security guards accompanying these refugees hugged each other with joy when a last-minute appeal to the European Court of Human Rights grounded the flight.
This ruling prompted Johnson and his right-wing allies to moot quitting the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Strasbourg court administers. Britain’s departure would place it in the illustrious company of Russia, which was thrown out in March. If Britain isn’t bound by inconvenient international human rights law, its leaders can do what they like. What could possibly go wrong?
Arguably the Strasbourg court’s intervention was exactly what the government wanted — a calculated addition to the Johnson regime’s endless culture wars, giving right-wing tabloids another cheap excuse to froth rabidly about “European bureaucrats” and “lefty lawyers.”
One source close to the government said: “They never expected the flight to take off. The point of the exercise was to create dividing lines ahead of the next election, which is going to be fought, in part, on a manifesto pledge to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and repeal the Human Rights Act.”
There have been comparisons with a secret program in which Israel relocated 4,000 asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, where they promptly disappeared. Israel — a welcoming beacon to Jews worldwide, provided they aren’t black — between 2009 and 2017 accepted just 10 refugees from Eritrea and Sudan. Such a racist immigration policy is viewed as an ideal model for emulation by Johnson.
Johnson’s government is in a stand-off with the EU over legislation to override the Northern Ireland protocol, which Johnson signed as part of his Brexit deal. The EU says such a unilateral move would be illegal. These patterns of flagrant law-breaking inspired Johnson’s ethics adviser to resign last week. Johnson has built a career on dishonesty and rule-breaking. He won’t stop now.
He launched the empty slogan of “global Britain” after he crashed his nation out of the EU, but the country has never been more distant from such global pretensions. With Britain’s abdication of its past activist foreign policy roles, and slashing of overseas development funding, the Foreign Office is reduced to impotently issuing vacuous statements expressing irritation and mild concern at human rights abuses by rogue states.
With its plan to dump refugees overseas, Britain — the land of Magna Carta and self-described “ethical” foreign policies — appears intent on proudly setting itself up among these basketcase serial human-rights abusers, sinking to the standards it condemns in others.
This grotesquely ugly policy, which has been roundly condemned by all voices of sanity, is a dead-cat distraction from the scandals, lies and failures of a rotten and incompetent regime on an inevitable course toward shipwreck at the next elections.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.