Who would have thought that immigration once again would strike the British debate? I guess everyone, who knows what the right, when in power, loves the most. That is: covering a crisis with another crisis.
Current discussion has two dimensions. One comes from political weaponization of the immigration, second from the facts and needs of the society. Just one year before parliamentary elections, one of the biggest crises in the British multi-crisis hits the government of Rishi Sunak.
All started with migration, which even after Brexit, is far from leaving the islands’ discourse. What’s more, as an old paradigm says, it serves best to cover much more complex problems that Britain is right now facing, with little hope to overcome them quickly. At the centre of the United Kingdom collapse, there is mismanagement and neoliberal policies. But right now all of this is hidden behind the mists of the immigration crisis and three keywords: boats, Rwanda and asylum seekers.
Rwanda and Asylum Seekers
The “Rwanda asylum plan”, or the UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, was a strategy first introduced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022. Under this immigration policy, those who the United Kingdom considered to be unlawful immigrants or asylum seekers would have been sent to Rwanda for processing, resettlement and, eventually, permanent refuge. In exchange, an undetermined number of the “most vulnerable refugees” who are now living in Rwanda were to be accepted by the United Kingdom. On April 13, 2022, Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta and British Home Secretary Priti Patel signed it for a five-year term.
Its declared objectives were to reduce the quantity of migrants using the English Channel as a crossing point, put an end to human smuggling, and – here comes an element of neoliberal propaganda – encourage investment and development in Rwanda. Johnson said the deal would “save countless lives” and destroy the “vile people smugglers'” and their ‘business model’. Under the concept, the United Kingdom would have given Rwanda a £120 million “economic transformation and integration fund” in addition to providing between £20,000 and £30,000 for each immigrant’s relocation and temporary housing.
After arriving in Rwanda, refugees would have been housed in Kigali, the country’s capital, waiting for their refugee petitions to be handled. Those who would be deemed eligible for asylum, would have been granted permanent stay in Rwanda and permanent housing. Migrants would not have been permitted to return to the UK to apply for asylum after arriving in Rwanda. Rwanda said that it would not accept families, minors or any immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
The number of migrants that would have been allowed under the system was not specified in the agreement with the Rwandan government, although it was later claimed that the first limit would have been 200. In contrast, a rise in non-EU nationals drove net migration to the UK to a record high of around 504,000 in the year ending in June 2022. According to the Home Office, the government recorded 45,755 arrivals by small boat in 2022, a 60% increase from 2021. As a result, there are a record 161,000 asylum claims pending.
Johnson’s Postmortem Defeat
In an interview with the Daily Mail on May 14, 2022, Johnson said that his administration was prepared for legal challenges to the plan’s enforcers, and that fifty migrants had been informed that they would be sent to Rwanda over the course of the next two weeks. On June 14, 2022, the first flight under this concept was planned, with a capacity of over thirty passengers. After many individuals were successfully removed from the aircraft due to legal challenges, the anticipated number of passengers had been whittled down to seven by June 14. As a result of an interim ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, it was established that the aircraft would not be leaving on June 14 in the evening. After the ECHR intervention, some Tories called for the UK to leave the ECHR.
The United Kingdom’s High Court said on December 19, 2022, that the proposal to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda was legal. A group of asylum seekers who had been chosen for deportation, however, contested the issue to the Court of Appeal, which decided on June 29, 2023, that the plan was illegal due to Rwanda’s lack of security.
The government filed its intended appeal against the decision. On October 9, 2023, the Supreme Court set the date for a three-day hearing on the policy. Rwanda’s government said during the hearing that it could be relied upon to handle refugees in a compassionate manner, but the migrant attorneys characterised their nation as a “woefully deficient” asylum system and a “authoritarian one-party state”. The court unanimously ruled that the scheme was illegal due to flaws in Rwanda’s asylum system, concurring with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion.
The government and Rwanda signed a new pact on December 5, 2023, which included more protections against removal. One notable modification is that those who are transported to Rwanda are not permitted to be sent elsewhere; they may only be returned back to Britain. Asylum applicants would not be detained in Rwanda while the British government considered their applications, according to the Rwandan policy. Rwanda would decide whether to accept their claims, and if approved, the individuals in question would be required to stay in Rwanda.
On December 7, 2023, the government obtained a first reading of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, after the signing of a new treaty with Rwanda on December 5, 2023. The Rwanda Bill, introduced by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, passed the House of Commons with a majority of 44.Reviving the idea to transfer certain asylum seekers to Rwanda is the main objective of Sunak in order to discourage others from crossing the Channel, which was dubbed with a slogan: “Stopping the boats”.
However, according to preliminary official data, 29,437 people entered Britain illegally in small boats in 2023—roughly 36% less than the previous year. A record 45,775 persons were found in 2022 after making the perilous trip over the Channel, one of the busiest shipping channels in the world, to arrive on tiny boats to England’s southern beaches. Currently, processing asylum petitions costs Britain more than 3 billion pounds annually, with the expense of lodging migrants in hotels and other accommodations while they wait for a judgement coming in at over 8 million pounds per day.
Nevertheless, numbers referring to the “boat migrants” are just a tip of the iceberg, showing us that the whole case is just a political weapon. Over the last two years, net migration has been very high. Before the pandemic, net migration to the UK was estimated by the Office for National Statistics to have increased to 745,000 in 2022 from 184,000 in 2019.
The new bill declares in section 1 that “this Act gives effect to the judgement of Parliament that the Republic of Rwanda is a safe country”. Given that the Supreme Court declared that “significant changes” to Rwanda’s policies and culture are required before the country can be deemed a safe place to deport asylum seekers, this safety assessment seems dubious. One may wonder whether Rwanda is really “safe” and if this regulation is really necessary. By explicitly contesting a very clear factual finding from the UK’s highest court (as opposed to an interpretation of domestic law), the Bill essentially usurps the function of the judge in this regard, which is excessive.
This has already been met with legal challenges, with Bingham Centre, saying that the bill as a whole is turning the UK’s legal system on its head. “What [the government] cannot do, however, compatibly with the UK’s well established understanding of the separation of powers, is to turn the factual question of Rwanda’s safety into a matter for the legislature to conclusively determine, rather than for the courts to consider in any future challenges to the application of the policy.”
At the same time industry and public services struggle for new workers. For example there are a lot of open positions in the NHS, indicating that health services are having trouble hiring and retaining enough personnel to meet demand. Given the length of time it takes to train for a career in healthcare, policies like expanding training opportunities, broadening training pathways, and offering incentives to work for the NHS are helpful for domestic recruitment but may not be sufficient to meet the demand at this time. All health professional roles have been on the shortage occupations list (SOL) for some time.
New Battle in an Old War
Currently, Rishi Sunak is trying to get a very contentious piece of asylum legislation through the House of Commons by using a last-minute charm offensive. Knives are out for him from opponents on both sides of his ruling Conservative Party, and this will be a serious test of his power with unlikely results. However, nobody is right now happy with the new plan. The plan’s opponents may be divided into two groups. Politicians on Sunak’s right essentially contend that because he has avoided the most extreme version of his Rwanda plan, Sunak has failed to legally bomb-proof it and that it will continue to face numerous challenges in the courts. They make this claim through a variety of splinter groups, such as the European Research Group, Common Sense Group, and the New Conservatives.
Robert Jenrick, who wants the proposal to go far further in disregarding human rights legislation, resigned from his position as Sunak’s minister of immigration, immediately before it was announced. Later, a “star chamber” of conservative Tory legal experts expressed extreme scepticism, calling it “partial and incomplete,” and advising Sunak to strengthen the whole argument. This will, however, harm the whole project on its way through possible legal problems.
With a majority of 44 votes and no Conservative vote against, it was granted a second reading in the Commons on December 12. The head of the Conservative group One Nation, Damian Green, advised members to vote in favour of the measure, saying afterwards that “if the government sticks to its guns then it can probably get this legislation through intact.” However, several allies of the government said that they would be putting up modifications in the next round.
How this battle will end up in 2024, it is yet to be seen. On 23 January, the House of Lords voted to delay the plan. Nevertheless, the ongoing immigration battle has put even the Labour party to become sceptical about migration and human rights.
The Rwanda bill, even if softened up or failed for the second time, has changed the British discourse, making it even more far-right in this post-Brexit crisis.