It all started with Boris Johnson. A year and a half ago, the then British Prime Minister stood in a hall at Lydd Airport in Kent and explained to the journalists present that illegal immigrants would in the future be flown from Great Britain to Rwanda. Johnson said the East African country is “one of the safest countries on record, and is recognized globally for its achievements in receiving and integrating migrants.” This policy is “fully consistent” with the government’s legal obligations.
The immigrant problem seems to have been solved. Only: Johnson’s claims had little to do with the truth, which was as true then as it is today.
The plan remains to deport refugees who come to Great Britain across the English Channel to Rwanda without asylum procedures. You must submit your asylum application there. Britain signed a contract with Rwanda in April, and the first plane was supposed to take off in the summer. London transferred £140 million. No refugees have been airlifted so far.
This is because the European Court of Human Rights stopped the project at the last minute with a temporary injunction. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “I will not allow a foreign court to stop these flights.” He appears to have been toying with the idea of ignoring the Strasbourg ruling.
But last week the High Court in London also ruled that the government’s plan was illegal. The judges argued about Rwanda’s poor human rights record. Asylum seekers may not be treated appropriately and risk deportation to their home countries – in Rwanda the rejection rate reaches 100%, even for Syrians and Afghans.
With the Supreme Court ruling, the government’s plan finally died, but fantasies of deportation remain fresh in the minds of conservatives. Sunak now wants to proceed through “emergency legislation” – thus ignoring the court ruling.
In order to curb illegal immigration, the government is endangering the rule of law.
Conservatives assert that the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits political action. This is also wrong. Withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, as British Conservatives and right-wing media openly suggest or demand, is not a solution. The High Court in London noted: Other international treaties would also stand in the way of the government’s deportation plans, including the UN Convention against Torture and Other Inhuman Treatment, the UN Refugee Convention and several British asylum and immigration laws.
Maybe Rishi Sunak knows that too. He still clings to the rallying cry, “Stop the refugee boats.” With Brexit, the Conservatives moved to the far right – and they haven’t looked back since. British Conservatives have tied their political survival so closely to the struggle against alleged foreign infiltration that there seems to be no way out.
It does not matter that the numbers of asylum seekers are relatively manageable. Last year, there were about 90,000 asylum applications in the UK and 112,000 in Austria. But this is not about the facts. The main promise made by Brexiteers was to “take back control” – especially at borders.
And so Conservatives from Johnson down have been claiming for years, against their better judgement, that Rwanda is a “safe third country.” This case shows that you cannot simply sugarcoat countries with which cooperation might make sense. It shows how difficult it is to stop illegal immigration without ignoring the rule of law and human rights. If asylum procedures are to be transferred to other countries, they must not only be safe, but also have the necessary capacity – and you must want to.
Rwanda is not a safe third country, but this could change. Countries in Africa can improve the human rights situation if they want to. In return you will have to offer them something. Austrian migration researcher Gerald Knaus suggests offering quotas of work visas and scholarships in addition to the money. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will have to take over asylum procedures in countries such as Rwanda. This is the only way to ensure fair procedures.
But this is long and complicated and does not fit into the simple solutions that conservatives want to achieve. It does not fit with Europe’s enemy image and with the battle cry “Stop the boats.”
The Conservatives have legitimate concerns about them leaving Parliament at the end of 2024, after 13 years in government. The first flights to Rwanda are scheduled to take off in the spring when the election campaign enters its heated phase.
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