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The question Boris's Rwanda plan critics must answer

16 June 2022

2:12 AM

16 June 2022

2:12 AM

There are many reasons to oppose Boris Johnson’s government’s policy of removing migrants to Rwanda. There’s certainly a moral case against this asylum policy, one which the Church of England’s bishops have presented with some force; and there could be a legal case which the Supreme Court will consider in July. But given the lack of achievements of Boris’s government, we should be grateful, at least, that this is a policy that attempts to actually achieve something.

For one thing, the Rwanda plan has a definite purpose: to stop the flow of migrants using small boats, often dangerously unseaworthy ones, to cross the English Channel. Even those opposed to the current policy would surely admit that it would be preferable if no-one made the crossing by these means. People have drowned crossing the Channel. Discouraging migrants from making the journey is no bad thing.

But can this plan solve the conundrum? At the heart of the problem facing Britain is that demand to live in the UK will always outstrip the capacity. There are probably hundreds of millions of people who would, if given the option, choose to live in the developed world rather than where they were born, whether through war, famine, risk of persecution for sexuality or political views, or simply the desire to provide a better life for their family. They cannot be blamed for this perfectly natural desire to live in a freer, safer country.

So the brutal reality is this: members of the OECD represent less than a fifth of the world’s population. These countries cannot absorb the total number of people who would seek a better life elsewhere. So, in any conceivable global asylum system, there must be a limit to the number of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who can be taken in total; each country must have its own limit as part of that, dependent on what their own populations are willing to accept.


How many migrants then is Britain willing to accept, and from where should they be accepted? The UK could doubtless fulfil its quota of refugees and asylum seekers through channels that already exist; directly from refugee camps, for instance. Each person who arrives on a small boat potentially denies a person waiting in a camp from entering the country. If a higher proportion of people who successfully make it across the Channel achieve residency than among those who apply from camps, waiting in the camps seems like a poor option. Surely this is the opposite of what we want to achieve?

There’s another conundrum for those who opposes Boris’s plan: what should be done with people who are not granted leave to remain in the UK? Here, the UK has no coherent policy. There are schemes where some people can be returned to their country of origin, but it can be difficult to prove where someone is from, and it may not be safe for them to return in any case. Once they are in the UK, the legal options available to them expand considerably, meaning the chances of being allowed to stay once you have reached the UK might be higher than they are if someone applied from another country. In short, this makes the difficult, dangerous journey almost worth the risk for some.

So what’s the answer? The only viable policy to stop people crossing the English Channel in a small boat is to make them not want to cross the English Channel in a small boat. And the only practical way to achieve that in the near-term is to mandate that crossing the Channel means a guaranteed failure to be given asylum even if (especially if) they would qualify for asylum if they arrived via another route.

The difficulty is then working out where they should go. It’s unlikely that they can be simply relocated to another developed country, because all developed countries are battling with the same issues. That’s also why talk of processing applicants in France is somewhat moot: the French don’t want to have to deal with all the rejected applicants either, just as it isn’t in their interests to stop all of the small boats leaving French shores. Many countries in the world are unsafe, many are already struggling to provide food, shelter and healthcare for all of their own people, and many just don’t want to participate in any such scheme, particularly given the negative publicity that they receive. The fact that both the UK and Denmark have identified Rwanda as the partner in their respective schemes implies that the list of countries keen to participate is quite short.

Doubtless Rwanda has its problems, but the key question is whether it is safer than the place from which the refugees or asylum seekers have fled. Is it really an outrageous suggestion to expand the list of possible destinations for refugees?

The policy may not work. But it is at least an attempt to solve the problem facing Britain. The fact is that if you have no answer on where the cap on numbers should be set, nor where failed applicants can be safely relocated, then you do not have a policy; you merely have a posture. Given the dilemma facing Britain, such a response is not sustainable. So while Boris’s Rwanda plan might make you feel uncomfortable, there’s a key question for the government’s critics: what would you do instead?

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