Is the Prime Minister’s plan to divert some asylum seekers to Rwanda racist? Is it inhumane? Is it a dead cat to distract from his fixed-penalty notice for breaching Covid rules? These are the questions fixating the political-media-activist class today and while they are not necessarily unimportant, they neglect a question that might be of more immediate concern to the average voter concerned about border integrity and abuse of the asylum system. Namely, will the Prime Minister’s plan work?
To answer this, we must acknowledge its provenance in Australia’s policy of offshore processing, detention and turn backs, introduced in 2001 as John Howard’s Pacific Solution and reintroduced by Tony Abbott in 2013 as Operation Sovereign Borders. Illegal boat arrivals are a hot-button issue in Australian politics and even the Labor party, while critical of Coalition governments along similar lines to those we are seeing today, have adopted variations of the policy when they have been in power.
The military-led Operation Sovereign Borders has been an undeniable success but not an unmitigated one. The boats have been stopped: in the first year of Operation Sovereign Borders, the number of boats arriving illegally in Australia fell from 104 to one and the number of people pulling off the journey from 7,674 to 158. This has not come without a price. For one, there have been serious human rights concerns raised about detention facilities on Nauru and previously Papua New Guinea. For another, in the first three years of Operation Sovereign Borders, the combined cost of offshoring arrivals and turning back the boats stood at AUS $9.6 billion.
Among the problems with the Rwandan plan set out by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary is that it adopts the easy bits of Operation Sovereign Borders but none of the hard bits. It’s attractive-sounding to right-wing ears to prevent arrival by those who would have no claim for entry under the Nationality and Borders Bill going through Parliament. But is it feasible? The Australians have been able to process offshore because it is the third in a three-step process and the first — turnbacks — both eliminated arrivals and, Australian ministers contend, deterred people smugglers and their clients.
The Prime Minister has decided not to follow Australia’s lead on turnbacks, replicating the policy superficially only by putting the Navy in charge of patrolling the English Channel. As Boris Johnson said today, the government thinks a turnback policy would not be ‘practical’ due to a lack of support from France. Australia put serious effort into securing the cooperation — or toleration — of certain Asian nations, though even then Operation Sovereign Borders has put strains in the Australian-Indonesian relationship, for example.
Failure to agree cooperation with France (or, even less likely, the country of origin of asylum seekers), combined with the absence of turnbacks, means Rwanda would have to bear a much heavier volume of people than Nauru or Papua New Guinea. The government’s primary concern is single male arrivals. Ninety per cent of the almost 29,000 who reached Britain last year were male and 70 per cent were single. Even assuming the UK was extremely conservative about the number it sent to Rwanda, it seems unlikely that the initial £120m payment would be sufficient even on a trial basis. Either Britain would have to send a limited number of single male arrivals — in which case, what’s the point? — or it would have to make continuation of the scheme more worth Rwanda’s while.
These problems in themselves could make this a costly boondoggle of a policy but that is before factoring in legal challenges and the mood among a parliamentary Tory party already fatigued with this Prime Minister. Potential court challenges could be to the policy’s impact on family life, which is protected by Article Eight of the European Convention on Human Rights, or even the Refugee Convention itself. Somewhat unhelpfully, Lord Wolfson, the minister spearheading the government’s efforts to narrow the application of Article Eight in deportation cases, quit yesterday over Partygate. Speaking today, the Prime Minister acknowledged the likelihood of legal challenges but he also spoke of his willingness ‘to explore any and all further legal reforms which may be necessary’.
That adds another layer of practicality concerns: while most Conservative voters would probably support derogation from the ECHR to tackle illegal migration, there would be more resistance to such a move on the Conservative benches in the Commons, to say nothing of the Lords. Despite their reputation, there is much less unanimity among Tory parliamentarians on illegal migration than there is among their Labour opponents. Besides, even if the Prime Minister could convince his backbenchers on derogation or similar legal reforms, he would still have to contend with the human rights guild, activist charities and NGOs, the BBC and the rest of the progressive media. This plan faces so many hurdles, even the hurdles have hurdles.
The Rwanda plan might play well with Tory — and other — voters but it is hard to see how it could have anything more than a marginal, symbolic impact on the illegal boat crossings problem. Unless, of course, the Prime Minister is determined to make it work, to spend whatever is needed, to whip his party into line, to clear any impediment practical or legal, and to take on and defeat the many interests ranged against this or any other proposal to tackle illegal crossings. We need only review Boris Johnson's record in government, and his past journalistic writings, to know that immigration, asylum and illegal crossings are among the many issues where he is an instinctive liberal.
When it comes to border integrity, as to almost anything else, practical hindrances can be overcome but a lack of will on the part of the Prime Minister cannot.