Britain, Rwanda and the Path Towards Asylum: An Embarrassment of Policy and Humanity

Harry Burden criticises the recently announced government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, assessing the practicality of the newly announced policy. 

Two weeks ago, the British government announced plans to deport asylum seekers to the United Kingdom away to Rwanda. They read like the throwaway ramblings of a hard-c Conservative who sincerely wishes politics was a little less scrutinous. The plan is cited to cost in the region of £120m, will supposedly target men travelling without a family, and will attempt to provide a deterrent for the growing numbers of migrants arriving legally in the U.K. It is both morally and politically farcical and will be shown to be so the longer this fantasy continues. 

For all that we’ve come to know and understand about the damaged political playbook of Boris Johnson, it’s that symbols and gestures can fill a narrative gap in the collective consciousness of the general public where policy has failed to speak for itself. Be it in the popular yet mistimed Eat Out to Help Out scheme, or in the condescending promises to extend pub opening hours conveniently timed in response to collapsing levels of trust in the government’s COVID strategy, tokenistic servings of red meat to whichever cross-section of the Conservative electorate appears most at risk of a wobble in faith has become part and parcel of Johnson’s ability to stabilise his premiership and defer attention away from internal party and domestic political crises.

Despite his tenure as Prime Minister reading as an obituary to public servants’ sense of duty and respect, the spread of recent public attention on the so-called partygate scandal provides a fresh threat to his continuation in office. Given the difficulty of his past six months and having faced scrutiny from the right of his electorate on unfulfilled promises on migration control – particularly post-Brexit – this right-wing fantasy appears another act of delusion and distraction. 

Principally, despite the faux empathy of Johnson’s recent promise that the alliance will “save countless lives” from human trafficking, the scheme fails to provide either a moral or logistical path towards success. As President of Rwanda since 2000 and in de facto control since 1994, Paul Kagame has overseen an expansion in the state’s efforts to stifle and suppress civil liberties in the country, leading to a broad silencing of prominent critical discourse both at home and abroad. Last year, political opposition figure Paul Rusesabinga was forcibly repatriated by the Rwandan government. Following the result of a popularly criticised trial, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison on dubious and politically motivated terrorism charges. 

Domestically, policy is chiefly set and implemented by the unelected executive branch, and whilst both the judiciary and the democratically elected Parliament exercise a degree of political control, they are often vulnerable to persuasion and manipulation by the powerful security and intelligence services within the country. This lack of accountability trickles down into their refugee integration programmes, with international human rights groups having highlighted the propensity for asylum seekers to Rwanda to become quickly reintegrated back into the human trafficking system on account of the poor support and structure that is afforded to those who arrive in the country.

Beyond failing to assure protection for the asylum seekers that it will be sending, Britain is also naïve to assume that the plan is either politically or financially sustainable. President Kagame has a record of being the dial-a-despot to call for wealthier countries who are in need of a solution to migrant capacities. Israel, who themselves have a history of deportation programmes to central African countries, dropped a similar scheme involving Rwanda in 2018 following mass political backlash and growing diplomatic tensions between the two nations, within which Kagame denied Rwandan involvement in the plans. Having over 120,000 asylum seekers in the country already, serious doubts have been cast on Rwanda’s ability to adequately sustain and support countless more. Theoretically, the policy should act as a deterrent for those entering the U.K. and subsequently reduce the burden on Rwanda over time. Yet it too is naïve to assume that the risk/reward of arrival in Britain , coupled with the unlikelihood that this plan will ever manifest into policy, would change the wish of asylum seekers to travel to the U.K. or a human trafficker’s willingness to provide that service. 

As the costs of the policy would continue to inflate, legal and political scrutiny on the arrangement persist and the continued logistical and bureaucratic cost of its existence become unavoidable, it is likely that this policy will be quietly dropped before it goes into practice. It reflects Boris’ record in office in that it is both a resounding policy failure and an example of humanitarian incompetence, built and designed with a cynical sense of duty and a skewed belief in the acceptability of its own delusions. 

It is built on a false image; its failure is inevitable, and it is another red meat policy destined to rot. 

Harry Burden is a freelance writer with a keen interest in authoritarianism, human rights and progressive futures. A graduate of Politics (Ba, KCL) and Political Communication (Msc, UvA-NL), he has also written about contemporary culture and current affairs. He tweets at @HarryBurden97, and his work can be found at

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