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23 April 2024

Tragedy in the Channel shows the flaws of the Rwanda plan

The new policy will not put off migrants who are already prepared to risk their lives to reach the UK.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Hours after Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda bill to tackle illegal immigration finally made it through both Houses of Parliament, tragedy has struck in the Channel again.

At least five migrants, including a girl reported to be four years old, died this morning (23 April) attempting to reach the UK from France on a dinghy reportedly crowded with more than 100 people. The victims appear to have been crushed by the sheer numbers crammed onboard by people smugglers.

The incident is a chastening yet timely reminder of the context surrounding the Rwanda bill, which will send migrants who arrive illegally into the UK to the African country. Amid continued speculation over the date of the next general election (Rishi Sunak today refused to rule out July), the plan has become politically totemic for the Prime Minister: will he be able to get a flight off the ground? Viewed in this context, last night’s midnight victory, after five rounds of ping-pong between the Commons and the Lords, has been recorded as a win for the Prime Minister.

But the deaths reported this morning reveal an uncomfortable reality. The purported aim of the Rwanda plan is to deter illegal Channel crossings: migrants wishing to reach the UK will, supporters argue, think twice about placing their lives in the hands of people trafficking gangs if they know they risk being deported halfway across the world.

Proponents of the Rwanda plan will inevitably point to today’s disaster as further evidence that strong measures are needed to address the issue of Channel crossings. They will accuse Labour and opposition parties of ignoring the human cost of letting this crisis continue and argue that lives are at stake if the government does not act.

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And, indeed, lives are at stake. The five deaths today follow seven earlier this year, 13 last year, and 12 in 2022. Migrant charities have long warned that crossings are becoming more dangerous. Yet more than 40,000 people have crossed the Channel since Sunak became Prime Minister in October 2022.

Given the danger, an uncomfortable question is raised: if the risk of death isn’t enough to deter people from making this journey, why should the risk of being sent to Rwanda be any more effective?

It is true that some of the migrants making this crossing do so for economic reasons. And there are ways of tackling this: the recent agreement to return Albanian migrants to their home country is already proving effective. But the majority (three in four, according to the Refugee Council) are genuine refugees who are entitled to asylum.

That there are virtually no safe and legal routes for people who have a legitimate asylum claim has been repeatedly ignored in this debate. (The government has said it will explore opening more legal routes in the future but there has been little progress on this front.) The reality is that a substantial number of people who pay people traffickers large sums of money to crowd them on to a tiny boat do so because they feel they have no other option. Fleeing war and persecution, they are desperate. And so they are prepared to take desperate measures. Measures that sometimes lead to tragedy, but which are deemed necessary given the hopelessness of their situation.

It is hard to see how the threat to send a tiny fraction of those who arrive (Rwanda has said it will only take 150-200 migrants) changes this calculation. The promise of “deterrence” rings hollow when those the Rwanda policy is intended to deter are already facing an altogether more immediate and devastating deterrent – and yet are still risking their lives.

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