OPINION- The collapse of Britain's stillborn Rwanda plan

OPINION- The collapse of Britain's stillborn Rwanda plan

Conservative government’s plan to deport bulk of those claiming asylum in UK to Rwanda was always about politics rather than policy – symbolism rather than substance- Labour looks set to win election easily and has made it clear that it will not implement the Rwanda scheme, preferring instead to concentrate its efforts on processing asylum claims more efficiently in the UK

By Tim Bale

- The author is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation.

ISTANBUL (AA) -The Conservative government’s plan to deport the vast bulk of those claiming asylum in the United Kingdom (UK) to Rwanda was always about politics rather than policy – symbolism rather than substance.


- Government's attempt to save itself

It was first unveiled in the spring of 2022, ostensibly to head off criticism over the number of migrants crossing to England from France in small boats – criticism which came from both Conservative party members of parliament and the populist radical right party, Reform UK.

But it was also made by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was in big trouble with British voters in the wake of the "Partygate" scandal. Desperate to avoid being forced out of Downing Street in disgrace, he needed something to distract from his travails. Rwanda was that distraction; never mind whether the scheme would work in practice or represented good value for money.

As a result, it was widely assumed it would be quietly abandoned when, a few months later, Johnson eventually succumbed to the inevitable to be replaced, first, by former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and then, after her premiership imploded after just 49 days, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

However, with public concern over migration rising, the government decided instead to make the Rwanda scheme the flagship of its efforts to deter people from seeking asylum in the UK. Anyone not arriving in the UK via a handful of officially-sanctioned schemes would be automatically deemed to be breaking the law. Furthermore, the Home Secretary (the UK’s interior minister) would be under a legal duty to detain and then remove them to a safe country, namely Rwanda. Moreover, whoever was sent there would have no right to return to the UK even if their application for asylum was granted.

Predictably, this last feature of the scheme, along with concerns that Rwanda could not, in reality, be considered a safe country, triggered loud protests among refugee and migration charities, as well as lawyers. The opposition Labour Party also refused to support the scheme but, because public opinion was split, with some of the voters it hoped to win back following its landslide defeat in 2019 expressing their support for it, it did so mainly on the grounds of workability and cost.

But it was ultimately the legal rather than the political objections that prevented the government getting any flights off to Rwanda. In the summer of 2022, following a decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), judges in the UK ordered a last-minute halt to deportations. And in November 2023, the justices of the UK’s Supreme Court unanimously declared the scheme unlawful, albeit only the grounds that Rwanda’s asylum system could not be said to meet the standards expected of it by the UK.


- Sunak's last struggle

Sunak responded by signing a new treaty with Rwanda and - in extraordinary fashion - passed a controversial act of parliament in April 2024 which asserted that, if the UK government deemed Rwanda’s system adequate and the country safe, then that was indeed the case.

At that point, it was widely assumed that deportation flights would take off sometime this summer, allowing the Conservatives to demonstrate to voters, in advance of an autumn election, that their deterrent scheme was up and running. Instead, Sunak amazed everyone by calling an election for early July, presumably because he anticipated yet more legal challenges and because, even if those challenges failed, he knew the scheme (a scheme that would initially accommodate only a few hundred people rather than the tens of thousands coming "illegally" across the English Channel every year) would not, in fact, "stop the boats."

Labour looks set to win that election easily and has made it clear that it will not implement the Rwanda scheme, preferring instead to concentrate its efforts on processing asylum claims more efficiently in the UK, negotiating a series of return arrangements with sending countries, and "smashing the smuggling gangs."

As a result, a scheme that has cost the UK hundreds of millions of pounds and which has seen only two people travel to Rwanda (and to do that voluntarily!), will, like those (in)famous deportation flights, never actually get off the ground - a monument to a policy that no serious politician would ever have dreamt up in the first place.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.


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