In a farcical new twist for UK refugee policy, Home Secretary Priti Patel this week officially announced a plan to deport an unlimited number of refugees from the UK to Rwanda. The policy is something of an open secret – Patel has supposedly been working on it “day and night” for eight months. But the incredibly cruel plan lacks the slightest hint of originality. Some of the richest governments in the world had this bad idea years ago – Patel just repackaged it.
On Thursday, Patel held a press conference in Kigali to justify the proposal. Britain’s asylum system, Patel said, is crumbling because of “malicious smugglers, profiting by exploiting the system for their own gain”. Pointing to recent deaths and dangerous human trafficking in the English Channel, she hailed her plan as ‘the biggest overhaul of our immigration system in decades’, and touted it as a ‘new and innovative’ solution. saving lives and taxes.
She explained that from now on, asylum seekers arriving in the UK will be relocated to Rwanda. If they are found to be refugees, they will be funded by the UK for up to five years to resettle in the desperately poor African nation. Private Rwandan hotels – including the misnamed Hope House – will be rented to accommodate the deportees. The UK will provide an initial £120 million to Rwanda to fund education and skills training for resettlers. Most of the details of the plan, however, remain secret. Patel explained this secret as a weapon against the adaptation of the smugglers – but in reality the plan is riddled with shortsighted holes.
Patel’s choice of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame as the destination for asylum seekers is not random. Kagame has a brutal past of silencing dissent at home, and a proven (but volatile) commitment to cold diplomatic reciprocity abroad. the FinancialTimes openly called Rwanda a “regime of pampered clients” of the West, which, for strategic geopolitical reasons, “adds legitimacy traps to Rwanda’s contemporary one-party form of government, in which incumbents use patronage , oppression and control of the electoral apparatus to stay in power. ”
Patel described contemporary Rwanda as a model of African development, although this is an incomplete picture of his party’s relationship with Kagame. While the President has been a guest of honor at Conservative Party conferences, some of his behavior – such as sending assassins to try and kill politicians in the UK – has also seen him (slightly) shunned by them. It is perhaps no coincidence that he is now back in the good graces of the Conservative government; loan repayments aside, much of the UK’s recent aid to Rwanda has a disturbing recent trend of ending up in non-Rwandan pockets and projects.
The fact that Priti Patel’s own family fell victim to British divide-and-rule machinations in colonial Uganda adds another layer of cynicism to this already dismal picture. To get an idea of how Patel’s plot will go wrong, it’s instructive to look at some of his inspirations.
Patel’s plan is not the first time Rwanda has agreed to act as a dumping ground for Western refugees in exchange for cash and favours.
During the 2010s, the Israeli government waged a vicious campaign against African refugees, calling them “infiltrators” and a “cancer in the body of the nation”. Kagame struck a quiet deal in 2014 with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow the Israeli government to airlift Sudanese and Eritrean refugees to Rwanda.
Testimonies from some of those dismissed paint a grim picture of lack of support, violence, theft and human trafficking. Most immediately left Rwanda and attempted to reach Europe. Netanyahu promoted and supported Kagame’s diplomatic initiatives internationally as a thank you, but the deal embarrassingly fell apart again when Israel tried to step up deportations in 2018.
That same year, the nominally social-democratic opposition in Denmark proposed setting up refugee reception centers outside Europe. The party came to power through its anti-immigrant campaign a year later.
Then, in 2021, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced that Denmark had also reached an agreement for Rwanda to take in virtually all of its asylum seekers in exchange for increased development aid, stronger diplomatic representation and exchange programs. Danish Immigration Minister Mattias Tesfaye has cynically tried to promote refugee deportations as a kind of class struggle, arguing that the working class should not have to pay for refugees. Tesfaye knows this is a false argument – detention abroad costs far more than just processing and resettling refugees, and does not stop the movement of refugees to Europe. And for all its triumphant anti-immigrant populism, Denmark’s deal with Rwanda – like that of Israel and the UK – is secret and completely non-binding. It simply expresses the wish that Rwanda host a reception center for asylum seekers from Denmark.
All these diagrams share the same original source of inspiration. Twenty years ago, the Australian government was responsible for introducing the so-called peaceful solution. This rotten legislation removed thousands of islands from Australia’s migration zone and saw the Australian Navy dump Australian asylum seekers in detention centers in countries including Nauru and Papua New Guinea. These camps were run by for-profit corporations for billions of dollars.
Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister in government when John Howard’s Conservative government was engineering the peaceful solution, recently became one of Patel’s advisers. As well as the plan itself, much of Patel’s rhetoric is taken from the Downer government playbook. In fact, her emphasis on saving lives and stopping crime is taken almost verbatim from the soundbites of the Downer government of the early 2000s regarding asylum seekers.
Writing in support of Patel’s plan, Downer wrote that “to solve a migration crisis, you have to break the business model. . . a very lucrative criminal racket run by unscrupulous gangs. He failed to mention that his preferred solution is just a different business model: a very profitable business legal racket run by unscrupulous groups like Serco, G4S and Wilson. In Australia, the average taxpayer now funds this business model – in which the horrific mistreatment of refugees has become normalized – to the tune of more than A$1.2 billion a year.
Downer became famous for his strong arming of poorer countries to agree to rotten deals that benefited big business. As a former US ambassador working in the Pacific put it bluntly, “The Howard and Downer governments were corporate accomplices.”
But the arrangements didn’t always go well. Australia’s relations with Papua New Guinea partly soured in 2016, and its Supreme Court ruled that detention centers on Manus Island were illegal. Thousands of deported inmates later filed a class action lawsuit against the Australian government, which paid a settlement of tens of millions of dollars to avoid an embarrassing broadcast of its misdeeds.
Besides their general moral repugnance, all of the precursors to Patel’s project share the same characteristics: the effort to outsource border control to poorer client states is always violent, it inevitably collapses, and it is hugely expensive. Sold during election campaigns as tax-saving initiatives to put an end to wrongdoers, they quickly become money pits for rotten regimes and multinational tax cheats.
This model of outsourcing settlement programs only benefits right-wing populist politicians and corporate profiteers. For this reason, it is destined to remain popular, despite the cruelty, greed, and incompetence involved. Faced with this, it is up to the left to reappropriate the terms of the debate. It means fighting the disasters and inequalities that so many face and refusing to let the rich decide who gets thrown into the global trash heap. In the meantime, refugees will continue to pay with their lives for capitalism’s worst crises – and the working class elsewhere will continue to fund its suffering.