This essay, on Britain’s Rwanda deportation scheme, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 21 August 2022, under the headline “Treating refugees like ‘waste people’ is abhorrent, wherever they end up”.
“There are state control, security, surveillance structures from the national level down… Political opposition is not tolerated and arbitrary detention, torture and even killings are accepted methods of enforcing control too.”
The email from a Foreign Office official to colleagues in the Home Office in response to Britain’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was disclosed during a court case last week, during which a number of media organisations and potential deportees were attempting to force the government to make public information it wants to keep secret. The court ruled that the majority of passages in internal documents relating to Foreign Office assessments of Rwanda must be released, although a small number could be redacted. The court hearing on the legality of the Rwanda scheme takes place next month.
The view of the unnamed Foreign Office analyst would have come as no surprise to anyone following Rwandan politics. The nation has recovered remarkably well from the genocide of 1994. But it is ruled with brutality by President Paul Kagame. Arbitrary detention and torture are the norm in dealing with his critics and even heroes who saved thousands of lives during the genocide are not spared. Rwandans abroad face sanctions for any form of dissent and critics are under constant surveillance. Within the country, journalists are routinely “disappeared” and opponents crushed. Many refugees from a previous scheme arranged by Israel were coerced and forced to flee the country.
All this is well known. What the British government is trying to do is conceal the fact that this is its official view, too, in an attempt to salvage the Rwanda deportation scheme. Liz Truss is apparently holding up publication of the Foreign Office’s annual human rights report so as not to make public its criticisms of the Kagame regime.
Whenever anyone dares to criticise Rwanda online there is usually a swarm of Kagame-supporting trolls trying to push back. Earlier this year, after the unveiling of the Rwanda deal drew public criticism, Rwandan government trolls were joined by a new online army: Tory ministers, MPs and media friends who suddenly discovered their anti-racist credentials.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that criticism of the scheme “speaks of inbuilt prejudice and, I would even go as far as to say, racism”. Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski told the LBC broadcaster Iain Dale that the pushback was “very, very racist”. (The fact that Kawczynski seemed not to understand the scheme at all, believing that it was about allowing Rwanda “to process them [asylum seekers] for us” when it is actually a one-way deportation ticket might make one wary of his analytical capacities.)
The Conservative peer and adviser to the British Board of Trade Daniel Hannan claimed that the critics were displaying “belittling and racist attitudes”. “Rwanda is a safe and prosperous country, guys,” he insisted. “Try to get over your stereotypes about Africa.” Which might be true if a nation that locks up its dissidents and is defined by the World Bank as a low-income country and among the poorest nations of the world could be described as “safe and prosperous”.
Politicians and journalists who seem to spend much of their time denouncing the “woke” and castigating them for throwing around unfounded accusations of racism were happy to make that very accusation when it was needed to provide camouflage for a particularly obnoxious government scheme. Those who defended the “hostile environment” policies that gave rise to the Windrush scandal were now apparently truly concerned about racism and insistent that any criticism of an African country must necessarily be bigoted. Even the “woke” might have blenched at such naked opportunism.
Having said all this, we should also be clear that the problem with Patel’s Rwanda scheme lies not just in the Rwanda part but with the scheme itself. If the asylum seekers were being deported to a human rights utopia rather than to a human rights wasteland, the scheme would be equally unconscionable. “If it was France, if we were sending people to Sweden, New York, Sydney, would they [the critics] change their mind?” Patel asked. No, I wouldn’t. But it’s worth noting that it’s not a coincidence that the asylum seekers are being deported to a country such as Rwanda and not to ones such as France or Sweden.
What we are seeing today are rich countries bolting their doors and getting poor countries to act as homeless shelters for their “unwanted”. Britain views asylum seekers as a political problem so it has used its economic clout and political weight to get a poorer country to clean up what it considers a mess. Indeed, the Home Office is looking for other developing countries to provide a similar service, although many have already contemptuously turned it down.
Patel’s deportation scheme is no different to rich countries exploiting poor ones as repositories for their toxic waste, except that the “toxic waste” in this case happens to be living, breathing people, people with dreams and hopes and aspirations who have been turned into commodities to be traded on the global stage.
Britain is not alone in this. Over the past decades, many rich nations have moved from keeping out asylum seekers to “offshoring” – using third countries as processing centres for asylum seekers – to straightforward mass deportation without any consideration of those involved, their backgrounds or their futures.
From Australia dumping asylum seekers in Manus and Nauru to the EU using militias and warlords in Africa to capture and imprison potential migrants before they can reach the Mediterranean, to America employing troops beyond its borders to prevent unauthorised people from moving towards the US, keeping the unwanted within the realm of poor countries has become global phenomenon.
As with the Rwanda scheme, rich nations’ obsession with using more impoverished ones as holding pens for the west’s unwanted has led them to steamroll any consideration of human rights or even the most basic norms of decency. What is developing is a new imperialism in which immigration controls have become a means of segregating the world into rich, gated nations and poorer ones that take care of potential migrants to the west.
So, yes, we should be concerned about human rights abuses in Rwanda. But we should be concerned even more about the system of “waste people” management now being constructed by the richest nations of the world.