The very thought of it carries the vestiges of something inhumane, which is likely why the European human rights court imposed a legal injunction against it. Nevertheless, the intent of Boris Johnson’s government to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda from Britain to be processed and fend for themselves in an African land thousands of miles away continues to send a shudder felt around the world.
From the moment Minister Priti Patel announced the plan to offload Britain’s responsibilities over to Africa, the opposition was fierce, both within the UK and worldwide. In a project she called “groundbreaking,” Patel took a nation that was a global leader in international development and turned it into an unfeeling mess of partisan gamesmanship.
Boris Johnson is in trouble, has been for over two years, and he’s frantically trying numerous attempts to change the channel. This Rwanda venture represents the most desperate act yet. As one journalist put it: “Our government has never before sought to evade its responsibilities so completely by shipping people seeking safety in this country off to another jurisdiction.”
The response has been fierce. The Archbishop of Canterbury called it “ungodly” and “against the very nature of God.” Prince Charles is reported to have been overheard saying he finds the whole thing “appalling,” for which he was criticized for giving a political opinion when he was supposed to stay neutral. But it underscores how divisive the Rwanda plan is. Union leaders, prominent business voices, entertainment celebrities, athletes, well-known authors and journalists – the length of opponents is long, and their rhetoric is fierce.
Still, Johnson appears unmoved, even going so far as to say this week that his government would “challenge” the European court decision. He has even hinted at pulling out of the human rights court altogether because of its actions. That sent alarm bells ringing even with some of his ministers who recalled how Britain had been a critical signatory to the European Human Rights Commission on November 4, 1950. The very next year, Britain took a lead role in forming the UN’s Refugee Convention. That was at the very beginning of the post-war era when advanced nations understood what a non-collaborative world could lead to. Should Britain remove itself from the commission, the signal it will send to the rest of the world will be unmistakable: the era of assisting the world’s marginalized is unravelling.
The truth is that asylum seekers are the world’s proverbial canary in the coal mine. When their numbers swell, the world is in trouble, in poorer and prosperous regions. It was happening before World War Two and in other conflicts since, and to not only turn a nation’s back to such suffering but to send those seeking rescue off to an unknown place in a far-off land says more about the state of global democracy than conflict regions themselves.
The plane carrying the first cohort of asylum seekers to Rwanda was stopped on Tuesday night just before take-off, not by any UK intervention but by a European court of justice that was seeking to enforce a standard that Britain itself had signed on to decades previous. That Boris Johnson is seeking to defy a human rights court in his moment of political crisis shows just how bad British politics has become.
A world order that slowly established a more peaceful and prosperous era is now winding down. Those left out of such arrangements in the past are now having their day and seeking to address old wrongs. Still, very few of them would condone the violation of human rights that Boris Johnson is now engineering in his quest for political survival. There is a warning in all of this for us, a sign that our politics is slowly on its way to becoming irrelevant when it comes to our most significant problems and shared aspirations.