We need to understand the Rwanda debacle as a classic product of the imperialist mind. From 19th-century French prison colonies in Guiana, to the Australian detention camps on Nauru, when racist governments wanted to inflict symbolic punishment on certain people, they sent them far away from “civilisation”.
That is the point Priti Patel was trying to make with Rwanda. The torture cells and prison camps of the Global South may be bad but Rwanda will be worse. Not because you will be mistreated there – though we offer no guarantees on that – but because your situation will be hopeless: you will be buried alive, without hope, in the darkest place we, the British state, can imagine.
Of the 130 people chosen to be the initial victims, just seven were deemed liable for deportation by the British courts. That ratio alone should shame us: out of every 18 people earmarked by government lawyers to undergo this mentally brutalising process, just one came anywhere close to being justly targeted.
Once the European Court of Human Rights applied the norms of international justice, that ratio fell to zero. But the government is undeterred.
It has become a serial lawbreaker. After numerous breaches of Covid-19 lockdown laws and the unilateral revocation of its own Brexit treaty, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is deemed entirely feasible. This iconic treaty, the first agreement in history to write the universality of the human experience into law, is mere toilet paper to politicians of the calibre of Patel, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
And despite all the tabloid headlines, all the expense, all the cruelty meted out to the detainees, was any refugee deterred from entering Britain by boat? Four hundred arrived on the very day the flight was due to leave. Now they too will enter the process of rapid-fire mental cruelty, shipped to barely equipped camps, shunted through the legal system, grilled, observed, measured – as if Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault’s famous work on the 19th-century prison system, had become a Home Office manual.
They arrive because, despite the relentlessly hostile environment in the UK and the threat of deportation to an insecure and poverty-stricken country, all that is better than dying in a torture cell, or rotting in a crime-ridden refugee camp.
Meanwhile, having tried and failed to enact the most unjust solution imaginable, the Tory government has achieved peak radicalisation. It has mobilised its right-wing base around the “cause” of Rwanda, just as the 18th-century elite mobilised the mob for hangings.
At the last general election, in my home town of Leigh, I heard a voter demand the round-up of all Romanians “and their kids” so that they could be “locked in a van and sent to Dover”. Johnson’s government has surpassed him in ambition, but neither has got their way.
And though Patel, surrounded by crestfallen civil servants and lawyers, will be picking her way around the European convention, the tone in the pub gardens of right-wing England will be one of fury.
Politically, the way forward is clear. The opposition parties should sign a pact pledging to repeal the Rwanda deportation scheme on day one of any post-Tory government and return any deportees to the UK asylum system. They should warn Rwanda that future diplomatic goodwill towards the country will disappear should it persist in colluding with this scheme.
Yes, the failed Rwanda flight was a waste of time and money – but I don’t want to hear about time and money from the opposition benches. I want to hear about tolerance and justice. I want to hear opposition politicians showing the same moral outrage as religious leaders and, reportedly, Prince Charles.
Because the incessant racism aimed at refugees has been with us for decades. From the days of Alf Garnett to the New Labour era through to now, I cannot remember a time when part of the population wasn’t muttering its disgust at “illegal immigrants”. Like late trains and exorbitant bus fares, hostility to the Other has become ingrained in our national conversation.
In that sense, the Rwanda plan was narrative genius: let’s send the othered people to an othered place. But it failed.
The solution, in the short term, is to create a safe place in Calais where refugees can apply for asylum and to offer a safe route to British territory for those who succeed. That can only be done through agreement with France and the EU. To achieve that, the UK needs to stop behaving unilaterally.
But in the longer term, we need to end the mindset of denial over the refugee crisis. I’ve reported from Gaza, Peru and the Philippines and seen the causes of asylum-seeking first hand. Refugees exist because the current world system, which we in the West created, is becoming unsafe for large numbers of people.
Officially this is a world of companies, governments and laws. In reality, in large parts of the Global South, it is a world of criminal gangs, elite corruption and corporate lawlessness.
Life is like that for them so that life can be like this for us. That’s the ultimate truth of a world system based on gross geographic and racial inequalities. They come here because our reality is safer than theirs, and if you were them, you would pack your kids into a rubber boat for the same reason. Until we start teaching that in schools, and reinforcing it in public discourse, the Alf Garnett theory of human security will flourish.
As a child of the 1960s, I’ve spent 60 years hearing the words “send ‘em back” muttered in taxis, pubs and workplaces. Now it’s “send ‘em somewhere else” – and we have to be alert to the danger created by Patel’s failure to achieve this.
Once you dehumanise a group of people and suggest it would be better to move them forcibly to an unspecified “somewhere else”, it is a short logical step to the suggestion that they should probably not exist at all.
I know all Tories, including Patel, would recoil with horror from such an implication – but anyone who’s done doorstep campaigning, or been on the right-wing Telegram channels, knows that genocidal ideation is out there.
All responsible politicians have a duty to combat it in words and actions. I fear the Rwanda scheme, and this debacle, will stoke it. The government should retreat, tone down the rhetoric and abandon the policy immediately.