When first announced last week, Britain’s plan to send illegal arrivals to Rwanda was met with stunned silence across the Western world. It wasn’t expected, and it wasn’t much appreciated either. Within hours, outrage spread across the world, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson had another fire on his hands, along with the fines imposed on him for violating Covid protocols. Ironically, it might just be the former than takes the minds of Britons off the latter, leaving Johnson to fight another day.
Though stark in intent, the Rwanda decision was just the latest version of a mindset within the Conservative government to play hardball with asylum seekers seeking to cross the English Channel to England’s coast. In 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel, a high-profile Asian female member of the cabinet, floated a plan to ship Channel crossers to temporary centers in North Africa, which would then be sent to the South Atlantic. Not surprisingly, Patel’s plan was deemed heartless, inhuman, not to mention over-the-top expensive. It never got off the ground. This Rwanda initiative might not either.
She has developed a new £200 million contract with Rwanda that would see the African country take the exiles off British shores. It seems just as presumptuous as the earlier plan, except it emerges when the Johnson government desperately seeks to rekindle their popularity enough to win the next election two years from now. The same minds and mindset that used the Brexit deal to split the country to acquire power have now come up with just as fractious a plan that would help them retain that power. It’s another deal with the devil that doesn’t care about the details or the human fallout.
It should not be presumed that Britons are enthusiastically taken by the idea. True, immigration and refugeeism are frequently the subject of hot debate in the UK, as in other Western nations, but general support for immigration remains high. The growing distrust of Johnson as PM has also made millions suspect the reasoning for the harsh asylum treatment at home and abroad. His claim that the move respects international law might prove the Achilles Heel of the entire scheme.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees immediately shot back at Johnson’s rationale, stating that the move was “unacceptable” and a clear breach of international law. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls the idea “inhumane” and said that the PM was “sub-contracting out our responsibilities.” Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and a litany of other humanitarian organizations have spoken out against the move that would see those coming as stowaways or in small boats flown 4000 miles to East Africa, there to remain permanently.
Perhaps it could be easier to stomach if the Johnson government didn’t use flammable language that would rile and divide voters. Listening to Brexit Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg call the Rwanda plan an “almost Easter story of redemption” turned enough stomachs to result in a public outcry.
There are plenty of Boris Johnson’s government members who have grown disenchanted with his leadership, and this controversial attempt to shift the focus from his troubles by dumping on the world’s most marginalized. An internal coup has been brewing for months, and the consciences of many Conservative MPs and cabinet members have been assailed by a scheme that they view as heartless, cynical, and beneath good government.
Only two decades ago, Britain stood with other Western nations and called for a more accessible, swifter plan for accepting global refugees. It was one of the very few countries that provided the full 0.7% of GDP to foreign aid that Lester Pearson called for in 1968. What Canada has never come close to, Britain accomplished with rigour and compassion. That Britain still exists, just not at 10 Downing Street.
All of this is but another sign of Western democracies losing their traction and direction just as the challenges like climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine stand directly in the path of global progress.
Abhijit Naskar has written that “a refugee saved is a world saved.” What do we call it when a refugee, or thousands of them, are turned away and shipped to an unknown land thousands of miles away? It is the loss of a world we once believed in, fought for, and enshrined in international law. To turn a refugee away is to turn that world away. Boris Johnson faces a stiff uphill climb getting this done. Still, the very reality that an advanced nation committed to a global humanity is even considering it is one of the clear signs that democracy is in trouble.