As published on Times Red Box:
In his speech in Kent last week, the prime minister described his new plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda as an “innovative approach made possible by Brexit freedoms.” But the plan is fraught with practical problems, beset by moral dilemmas and hamstrung by extortionate costs. And outsourcing our international obligations are certainly not the freedoms that Brexit was about winning.
The aim of the prime minister’s plan is laudable. “Disrupting the business model of the gangs,” is a goal that every right-minded Conservative MP will share. And the prime minister’s desire to prevent “economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system” is equally desirable. Yet there is little evidence that outsourcing our obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees is going to break the people smugglers’ business model, nor that economic migrants are actually taking advantage of the asylum system on any significant scale.
More than seven out of ten people claiming asylum in the UK after crossing the Channel are granted permanent leave to remain and refugee status by the Home Office, even before the appeals process kicks in. The overwhelming majority aren’t gaming the system, they are being found to be legitimate refugees who are so desperate that they risk drowning in the Channel.
The customers of the people smugglers are currently served by an evil monopoly. Iranians fleeing persecution by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard have no route to join friends and family by claiming asylum in the UK without arriving via an illegal route. Likewise, Iraqis fleeing Daesh, have no safe or legal route and are ripe for exploitation by people smugglers.
As Israel found in 2018, sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is no guarantee that they will stay there. The Rwanda foreign minister, in his press conference with Priti Patel last week, said that they may be deported again to a third country but he could not say which one. How do we ensure they do not cross the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo or into Uganda and join one of the multiple armed militias that operate in their war-torn jungles? What is to stop them heading north, to Somalia and then on to Yemen? By definition, these people have nothing but the clothes on their backs, so are ripe for exploitation by extremists.
People in need of protection should come to the UK via safe and lawful routes rather than making an illegal journey. But those routes need to be available, and unless you are a Ukrainian or Afghan, there are simply no safe and legal routes available to you.
As a former chair of the public accounts committee, I remain deeply sceptical about the costs of this new plan. So, it seems, does the permanent secretary at the Home Office, who wrote in his request for a written ministerial direction that “value for money of the policy is dependent on it being effective as a deterrent. Evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain and cannot be quantified with sufficient certainty to provide me with the necessary level of assurance over value for money.” If the department’s chief accounting officer isn’t convinced, that should set alarm bells ringing for every taxpayer.
The former Home Office permanent secretary, Sir David Normington, was even more forthright: telling the BBC that “it’s inhumane, it’s morally reprehensible, it’s probably unlawful and it may well be unworkable.” Not exactly Sir Humphrey language but you get the idea.
Brexit was about taking back control. About asserting our own sovereignty and deciding our own destiny. The freedoms of Brexit should be about innovations justifying British exceptionalism on the basis of moral leadership, not moral delinquency. When it comes to international law and our obligations to UN conventions that we didn’t just sign up to but drafted and gifted to world. Largely for historical reasons, we are one of the five permanent members at the UN, we are a G7 state and we have a historic responsibility to Africa. We are better than this. Or at least, we used to be.