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James Cleverly and Vincent Biruta holding red folders in front of a blue backdrop reading UK Rwanda partnership
UK Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta sign the latest treaty on the UK-Rwanda partnership. Ben Birchall/PA images

Even many critics of the Rwanda deportation policy are missing the point of why it’s wrong

The UK government’s proposals to send asylum seekers arriving to the UK onto Rwanda continue to spark intense opposition.

This includes opposition from right-wing Conservative MPs who don’t think the plan goes far enough. Several recently attempted a rebellion against the latest bill, arguing that it failed to conclusively stop refugees from legally challenging their own deportation to Rwanda.

The government’s proposal now faces challenges in the House of Lords. Politicians on the left and in the centre, international human rights experts and humanitarian organisations continue to warn that the bill poses a constitutional danger and breaches international law.

Labour has said that it opposes the policy on the grounds that it is unworkable, a breach of international law, and unaffordable. It has vowed to scrap it if they enter government.

The ongoing debate has focused mainly on the legality of the bill and on Rwanda’s perceived saftey. In my view as a political philosopher, this fails to articulate exactly why the policy is fundamentally wrong. Opponents of the policy on the left must reckon with the racist undertones of the policy and its prejudicial treatment of specific groups of refugees.

Much recent discussion suggests that the policy is wrong primarily because Rwanda is not a “safe” place for refugees. Indeed, this was the basis of the UK Supreme Court’s ruling of the plan as unlawful. The court’s main concern was that many refugees, if sent to Rwanda, would face the risk of refoulement: being returned to a country where they could face persecution.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, the government has drafted new legislation to declare that Rwanda is safe, and signed a new treaty with Rwanda guaranteeing against the risk of refoulement.

It is dispiriting to those of us familiar with the history of the UK’s relationship with Rwanda – particularly the gross lack of care the UK government showed Rwanda during the country’s genocide – to see the government now appear so interested in Rwanda’s safety.

The real problem with the policy

This should be a discussion not only about how (and how not to) treat refugees in general, but also about the value we place on the humanity of the specific refugees that will most likely be affected by the policy. Instead, we have been left with a debate on the government’s own, self-serving terms.

I would argue that what is wrong with the government’s policy has almost nothing to do with the destination of deportations, and everything to do with who is being sent there.

In March 2023, the government signed a deal with the Albanian government that significantly reduced the flow of Albanians into the UK. The refugees that continue to enter the UK on small boats (and that would be the ones sent to Rwanda) therefore, are primarily from Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea.

With this policy, the government suggests that even among those who we regard as vulnerable, there are those we should distinguish as being unworthy of sharing in the country’s political, economic and moral resources.

A cardboard sign sitting on the ground that reads 'would we do it to them if they were white?'
A protest sign against the Bibby Stockholm migrant accommodation barge that gets to the heart of the issue. JMundy/Shutterstock

It should concern us that one of the reasons that Rwanda might not be “safe” for the type of refugees the UK wants to deport is precisely because there is almost nowhere that is safe for people who are not only poor and vulnerable, but also black, brown and Muslim.

There is, therefore, nothing random about the UK government’s choice of Rwanda. It is a place, in that “other continent,” where the government can send people it does not distinguish from waste – people not immediately or suitably exploitable – to be easily discarded.

It is a place where no one who is really “from here” will ever go. As such, it is on the government’s own racist bait that much of what has recently counted for dissent has been caught.

Critics of the plan have also raised concerns that under Rwanda’s authoritarian regime, many refugees’ basic human rights may be violated. Yet, despite decades-long accounts of gross human rights abuses, the UK has been purposeful in developing and maintaining strong economic relations with Rwanda when this has served its interests.

The humanity of refugees

The UK government has had no trouble recognising the humanity of numerous other groups of refugees. But instead of sustaining a robust moral argument that questions why the government refuses to do the same for the people most likely to be affected by the Rwanda policy, public debate remains centred on its perceptions of Rwanda’s safety. This risks feeding into the prejudice that frames the UK’s understanding of Rwanda.

There are, of course, many who have strongly, and rightly, opposed the government’s plans on the basis that they do not reflect how “a decent society” should treat people. Yet the current debate now, almost exclusively, focuses on questioning Rwanda’s safety, and the cost of the policy to the British taxpayer.

Those genuinely opposed to the policy should ask the government to prove not whether Rwanda is a safe place, but why the government itself persists in falling so far short of being of the character that these refugees deserve in their search for respect, compassion, and yes, for safety.

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