Rwanda migrants: Boris Johnson's plan to deport asylum seekers is wrong, but critics need to offer an alternative to tackle people smugglers – Brian Wilson

The great Rwanda outsourcing project is wrong on every available level, one consolation being that it is bound to fail even if it ever gets under way. Why look in the crystal ball when the book is available?

Boris Johnson visits the command room at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Dover (Picture: Dan Kitwood/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson visits the command room at the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Dover (Picture: Dan Kitwood/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel tried the same thing a few years ago and, of 4,000 deportees dispatched to Rwanda, only nine remained. The rest simply resumed their original objective, quite possibly using the same people smugglers as first time round. Doubtless these unsavoury characters are establishing branch offices in Kigali as I write.

As a practical solution, it is bonkers, even before you get to the ethics. Will there be exemplary deportations in time for the local elections? Or is it just a stunt designed to serve a very short-term purpose of throwing red meat to the more prejudiced elements of the electorate? The possibility should not be ruled out.

It is only a few months since the appalling Priti Patel told us the answer to small, fragile vessels crossing the Channel, over-crowded with asylum seekers, was to engage in maritime dodgems in order to bump them back towards France. Nothing more has been heard of that masterplan.

The fact this latest “solution” is just as offensive as its predecessor does not mean there is not an issue to address in a serious way. The people who attempt these crossings are already victims, first of circumstances in their own countries and then at the hands of criminals to whom they pay money under very false pretences.

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In the great scheme of things, the numbers are not vast. The official figure is that 28,500 made the crossing last year which might double in 2022. The impacts are felt mainly in areas closest to the Channel and it is not unreasonable for people there to demand that the issue is addressed. The difficult question of “how?” demands more than indignation.

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It is easy for those of us who live far from these realities to be high-minded. I doubt if the good people of Kent and Sussex have more faith in the Rwandan solution than anyone else. However, it helps the credibility of those denouncing it if we also accept responsibility for coming up with alternatives which stand the test of equivalent ethical scrutiny.

If the answer offered is that everyone who makes it across the Channel on a boat should be awarded entry to the UK, then this clearly incentivises a trade which everyone agrees is immoral. It also disadvantages the vast majority of potential asylum seekers who remain in refugee camps waiting their turn, often for years on end.

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So, while superficially attractive, saying “let them all in” is not as ethically watertight as it might first sound. Combining humanitarian principles with an equally principled adherence to a policy that does not unduly encourage those willing and able to take the risks involved in crossing the Channel is tricky and nobody should pretend otherwise.

The root of the immediate problem lies in the ruthless, criminal activities of the people-smugglers and that is where the focus of prevention should surely rest. That is not a quick fix and requires a Europe-wide effort in which the UK must play its part. I heard one particularly thick Tory MP saying the Rwanda solution represents “taking back control” which is the opposite of the truth. It means admitting defeat and exporting the problem.

Inevitably, Nicola Sturgeon was at the forefront of denunciation, matters for which she has no responsibility always being more attractive than those for which she does. However, nothing is clear-cut for Nationalist indignation either. One scintilla of difference in immigration policy within Britain would guarantee a hard border across the middle, creating far more problems than it resolved. Like it or not, we share a small island.

The differences involved are not constitutional but ideological and practical. Patel’s Rwandan ploy confirms the cynicism only of the Johnson government. While complex problems cannot be wished away, they could be approached very differently based on humanitarian values which most of us, from Land’s End to John o’Groats, subscribe to in equal measure.

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