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Will the Rwanda Bill save Sunak’s sinking ship?

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Bill plans to deport refugees fleeing wars, violence and economic hardship in African and other countries and seeking asylum in the United Kingdom, to Rwanda one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world, the writer says. – Picture: Simon Walker / Socialist Worker

By Kim Heller

After lengthy legal warfare and remonstration from human rights advocates, the Rwandan Bill has finally been passed in the British Parliament. For migrants entering the United Kingdom illegally in the hope of being granted asylum, this new legislation shuts out that opportunity. Rather those that reach the shores of the United Kingdom will be sent all the way to Rwanda, as the UK effectively outsources its migrancy crisis.

For the beleaguered UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, the first wave of deportations cannot come early enough. Sunak is hoping that the outward flights of asylum seekers from UK to Rwanda will begin in July. Sunak has pledged that the legislation will stop thousands of asylum seekers arriving on British shores. “I am determined to end the burden of illegal migration on the British people,” Sunak has said.

There were over sixty-seven-thousand asylum applications in the UK in 2023, largely from people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Türkiye. In the first four months of 2024, over seven thousand people arrived on the shores of Britain after journeying across dangerous seas in small boats.

The Prime Minister’s popularity is sinking fast and furiously due to his poor management of the British economy. By purging “undesirable” asylum seekers, Sunak is hoping to restore his sullied reputation, lift his prospects of re-election in the next election, and keep the increasingly flagging Conservative Party in Office.

The Tories could be facing an epic fail in the upcoming election. Opinion polls across the UK point to a significant plunge in support for the governing Conservatives. Author Samuel Earle recently wrote in The Guardian that, “Tories have always had a fear of political extinction. After the next election, they could be right.”

Earle writes that the mood in the Conservative Party is morose, as they contemplate not only a defeat in the upcoming election but that they may never recover from the loss. A cleverly crafted Bloomberg’s headline says it all, “UK Conservative MPs flee sinking ship before general election”.

Rishi Sunak looks set to take the Tories into what could be the party’s worst showing ever. For the sinking Sunak, the Rwanda Bill is a political life jacket.

Sunak has tried to float the Rwanda Bill as a moral initiative which will “deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings” across the English Channel and “break the business model of the criminal gangs who exploit them”.

Human rights groups do not believe that this legislation will stop the flood of asylum seekers or stop traders of human trafficking. And the seas will continue to claim the wreck of drowned bodies. Desperate people in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children will continue to undertake turbulent and dangerous journeys and routes to touch a shore of possibility.

The Rwanda Bill is but a buoy of populist talk and political opportunism. It is stewarded to save and protect the Prime Minister and the Party. It is a surf of distraction from the waves of failure of both Sunak and the Tories.

Although the Bill has been passed, it is not all ready, steady and go for the Prime Minister. More legal challenges are expected. Moral outrage has yet to be drowned out. Refugee rights organisations have raised concerns about how this “inhumane” legislation criminalises authentic asylum seekers.

Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said, “The government is determined to recklessly pursue its inhumane Rwanda plan despite the cost, chaos, and human misery it will unleash. We know it is likely to cause a catastrophic system meltdown.”

Legal scholars have expressed outrage about how this legislation is in contravention of refugee law obligations, international law, and the Geneva convention. The UN Refugee Agency and UN Human Rights Office have raised concerns about the impact on human rights and international refugee protection systems.

Both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, are amongst those who have raised concerns that the Bill is not in line with international human rights and refugee laws and protections.

The UN representatives argue that the legislation extinguishes access to asylum, refugee protection, and requires removal to another country, where migrants may not be able to access protection.

Grandi said, “This new legislation significantly erodes the legal framework that has protected so many, exposing refugees to grave risks in breach of international law.”

Additionally, the UN has raised concern that those who may have suffered human rights violations or may have been victims of human trafficking, wars or have other well-founded claims under international human rights and humanitarian law, will be placed in jeopardy.

The Bill disregards the 1951 Refugee Convention, which takes cognisance of the many refugees who may be forced to enter a country of asylum irregularly, and without necessary personal or identity documentation.

Türk has said, “In addition to raising very serious legal concerns from the international perspective, this Bill sets a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow, with a potentially adverse effect on the international refugee and human rights protection system as a whole.”

The UK is not the first country to introduce such a dramatic anti-migrant programme. Nor will it be the last. Germany is now looking at a similar initiative to process asylum seeker claims.

In 2001, Australia’s introduced a plan discouraging sea crossing by boat, and sent asylum seekers to detention centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for their claims to be processed. In 2014, Israel developed a policy to send illegal immigrants and unsuccessful asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. This programme ended abruptly after an intervention by the Supreme Court.

The UK is taking an easy route by sending its ‘undesirables’ to Rwanda, as if Africa is the place for ‘undesirables’ and a ready dumping ground for Europe. Denisa Delić, director of advocacy at International Rescue Committee UK, said “Rather than outsourcing its responsibilities under international law, we urge the government to abandon this misguided plan and instead focus on delivering a more humane and orderly immigration system at home. This includes scaling up safe routes, such as resettlement and family reunion, and upholding the right to seek asylum.”

The UK’s attempts to make its immigration problems an African one could have dire consequences for peace and stability on the Continent. It is an unfair burden to place on a Continent that is already suffering from massive refugee, migrant and displacement issues, caused by war and poverty.

This has not stopped the UK from approaching other African countries, including Angola and Botswana, to assist. The President of Botswana has rejected the partnership. The migration problems of European and other Western should not be the business of Africa. For now, it looks like, once again, the UK is flexing its financial muscle to exploit the Continent. It is a post-colonialism of a special type, where Africa remains servant.

Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo says Kigali is ready to welcome those “relocated to Kigali”. President Paul Kagame believes that Rwanda is in a strong position to offer a positive and progressive solution to the UK migrancy issue. Rwanda will receive £290 million for their assistance. This would be used by Rwanda to not only prepare to receive and care for the migrants but to support Rwanda’s economic development.

Rwanda is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, but one of the most densely populated. Like many other African nations, it is battling to accommodate refugees. It is unfortunate that President Paul Kagame, who had displayed such foresight in bringing stability and development to Rwanda would reduce himself to a pawn in this British gambit of political chess.

Kagame would do well to focus on resolving internal issues rather than being a colonial port for UK’s unwanted goods.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.