Last night, a Boeing 767 that was supposed to fly 130 asylum seekers to Rwanda returned to Spain without a single passenger on board. Throughout the day, the number of people planned for that flight had been whittled down by multiple legal challenges. Then, minutes before take-off, the European Court of Human Rights made an injunction stopping an Iraqi man known as KN from being taken to Central Africa because, it said, he faced ‘a real risk of irreversible harm’.
The question some are asking is why the Home Secretary didn’t wait. There is supposed to be a broader challenge at the High Court next month which would, perhaps, have dealt with Strasbourg’s concerns – namely, that there was no legal mechanism for asylum seekers to return to the UK. Although that seems to be a feature rather than a bug: even if you are found to be a legitimate asylum seeker, the UK has said Rwanda is a safe place for you to settle. In other words, you still don’t get to come back to Britain. A mechanism for some legitimate refugees to return to the UK may be the only way to get this policy passed Strasbourg. But perhaps ministers want their flagship policy to get bogged down by legal challenges. When it comes to the Protocol, there’s certainly a view among some Europeans that Boris Johnson is dusting off the Vote Leave playbook, picking fights in order to get his message across. It works in a campaign, but it's an odd strategy for governing.
The central question after last night is what to make of the Rwanda policy. It certainly divides opinion. Again, there are those who think that dividing opinion is part of its appeal. But Rwanda is as much a product of exasperation. The number of people illegally crossing the Channel is growing rapidly every year. And some of those people are dying. A couple of years ago I spoke to a family member of one of 39 people who suffocated in the back of a refrigerated lorry while attempting to get into Britain. When we spoke, they didn’t know for sure whether their sister was one of the bodies. But they suspected. It’s a horror I still find hard to imagine, slowly realising you’re unable to breathe in a fetid, sweaty box.
So although I felt a little sceptical, in fact, a little uneasy, about the Rwanda policy, I accepted something had to happen. The government's response to its Rwanda critics is: what would you do? I've yet to hear a convincing answer to that question. The number of dinghy crossings is growing every year. Many of those people, too, find themselves suffocating under the waves of the English Channel. The UK tried paying the French to better police their own borders, but it seems not to have made much of a difference. Instead, the only option is to dissuade people from making those journeys in the first place. Why bother risking life to get to the UK if you’re going to be flown 4,000 miles away?
Back in 2015, David Cameron promised to take people directly from refugee camps. He wanted to discourage asylum seekers from illegally journeying into Britain, instead assessing them in or near the country that they were fleeing. It never happened, but it seemed sensible enough. Combine the two together – a tough Rwanda-style plan to deal with illegal entry and a generous offer to take legitimate refugees in situ – and we’d have something close to a fair and effective policy. The problem of course is scale. According to the UN, there are 26 million refugees across the globe. Even once we’ve weeded out the many millions more economic migrants, the UK would be unable to handle more than a fraction of that number. We are always going to have to restrict access to legitimate asylum seekers in some way. That is the most difficult problem of all.