The bishops of the Church of England have hit the headlines by writing to The Times in protest at the Government’s plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda for treatment.
Whether or not the first deportation flight leaves Britain today for Rwanda, this policy should shame us as a nation. Rwanda is a brave country recovering from catastrophic genocide. The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries. Those to be deported to Rwanda have had no chance to appeal, or reunite with family in Britain. They have had no consideration of their asylum claim, recognition of their medical or other needs, or any attempt to understand their predicament.
It is worth pausing to consider what exactly is going on here. First, we need to understand what the policy is doing: not deporting failed asylum seekers, but sending those who might have a legitimate claim to asylum to Rwanda, to be processed there and, if their claim is successful, to be settled in a country with a very poor record on human rights. Rwanda has already received refugees from other areas, mostly other parts of Africa, and appears to be very well organised. But most refugees do not find employment, and so rely on benefits of £35 a month. And the country has a poor record on free speech; criticism of the Government is simply not tolerated.
Critics who flee the country have been pursued and assassinated by Rwandan agents in exile – or in the case of Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved the lives of more than 1,000 people during the genocide and on whom the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda was based, put on trial…and has been sentenced to 25 years in jail.
His daughter, Carine Kanimba, told the BBC it showed Rwanda had zero respect for human rights: “Rwanda is a dictatorship, there is no freedom of speech, there is no democracy. In the last election the president won the elections by 99%, which tells you this is not a democracy.
“I don’t understand why the British government would decide to send vulnerable people to a country that is known to oppress its own people.”
As the letter from the bishops notes:
Many are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors. Many are Iranians, Eritreans and Sudanese citizens, who have an asylum grant rate of at least 88 per cent.
So the plan is to deport people fleeing from human rights abuses, the vast majority of whom would qualify for asylum, to a country where they might well face human rights abuses.
Quite apart from the inhumanity of such an approach, the plan faces three other major obstacles. First, the Government was warned by UNHCR at an early stage that it was most likely illegal under international law. The current response to the agreed Northern Ireland protocol suggests that breaking international law is not a major concern that would deter this Government from a plan.
Secondly, it is unclear that such a policy could actually work in practice.
Having worked in Rwanda, I believe the Home Office plan will be ineffective and poor value for money. Many of the people crossing the Channel originate from Iran, Iraq and Syria. Culturally, they are unlikely to integrate into Rwandan society, which is of a predominantly Christian tradition and has different cultural values. In view of Israel’s abortive attempt at a similar plan for the resettlement of its African migrants and the closure of the Australia’s offshore processing in Papua New Guinea, it would be folly to proceed.
Dr Joseph Mullen
Former UN adviser to Rwanda
That leads to the third observation: the plan is ludicrously expensive. It is no surprised that yesterday, on Radio 4’s Today programme, Liz Truss refused to comment on how much the scheme would cost—but it is not difficult to find out. Putting people on a charter flight is likely to cost £13,000 per person; and other similar schemes have cost a small fortune.
The equivalent Australian schemes in Nauru and Papua New Guinea cost approximately £600m per year to process 300 people. A similar Australian scheme to resettle migrants in Cambodia cost around £30m to successfully resettle just two people.
I wonder what better could have been done with the £2m per person? MPs on both sides of the House have noted that it would be cheaper to put asylum seekers up in the Ritz Hotel in London. The extreme waste of money for this scheme is itself an ethical issue.
One of the criticisms of the bishops’ intervention is that they are offering no alternative plan. But noting that an action is wrong does not require that we point to the alternatives, and the idea that the Rwanda plan is the only feasible response to the problem of migrants undertaking the dangerous Channel crossing is absurd. The most obvious alternative is to work in partnership with France to establish safe routes and processing centres there.
UK officials already staff a border in France. Charities say that asylum seekers in northern France hoping to reach the UK to claim asylum should be able to register their claim with UK officials and then be placed on ferries to be brought to the UK while their claim is processed. If such a scheme was adopted it would achieve what the government has repeatedly promised to do: smash the business model of the people smugglers.
If this were implemented, then there would need to be an agreement with France to return those whose asylum applications failed—which would require considerable good will on both sides, and compensation for France.
An agreement like this offers something for everyone to like and loathe. It offers more safe and legal routes but with a returns policy and a limit on numbers many will dislike. For the government, it offers the prospect of reducing crossings, but accepting more asylum seekers from Europe, something unpopular with many of their supporters. But any solution needs more realism and compromise than our current polarised discussion allows. And the events of this week show it is needed quickly.
And here we get to a political sticking point: polarisation of discussion. Some think that, given this plan is never going to work, the whole point of it is to polarise the discussion, to divide and rule.
The Guardian think that last night’s “European ruling throws Rwanda plan into chaos”, but I am not so sure. As a source close to government thinking put it to me: “They never expected the flight to take off. The point of the exercise was to create dividing lines ahead of the next election, which is going to be fought, in part, on a manifesto pledge to leave the European Court of Human Rights and repeal the Human Rights Act.”
This takes concern about this policy to a whole new level. Ironically, Priti Patel in the House of Commons yesterday said that the plan was designed to prevent the traffickers treating migrants as ‘cargo’—but that does appear to be precisely what the Rwanda plan is doing! Worse than that, this whole issue is designed to be a political football, to be kicked about with the aim of winning a wider game.
So, it seems to me, the intervention of the bishops is a welcome attempt to humanise the whole process. We need to consider how we treat potential asylum seekers humanly—that is all that is being asked. Although the statement uses the word ‘policy’, it is really only criticising a particular plan, and makes no comment on policy issues, such as the wider question of migration and immigration policy. I don’t think there is any doubt that the bishops would share with the Government a desire to deter the traffickers and reduce dangerous crossings; why they are criticising is the inhumanity of this plan as a response to the issue.
This is, again, not a little ironic. One of the pledges of this Government, and one of the key claims in Johnson’s case for Brexit, is that we would ‘take back control’ of our borders, and not be subject to European control on this issue. I am not sure that leaving the EU has actually made any difference to our freedom or otherwise to manage immigration—in the year to March 2022, more than one million visas were issued to foreigners, the highest figure on record!
There remain several questions about the bishops’ statement. First, should church leaders make comments about political actions and policy? Politics isn’t everything, but lots of things have political implications. And if we follow Jesus as his disciples, this is inevitably going to have ‘political’ consequences. As Giles Fraser notes:
Not only is the Bible one of the most influential works of political philosophy ever written, it is largely seen through the lens of the refugee. The 40 days of Lent, for example, are an echo of those 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, homeless. Jesus is forced to become a refugee after his birth, first fleeing to, then symbolically returning from Egypt. That’s why I think Justin Welby, along with various other senior Bishops, was quite right to draw upon the scriptures to say what they think about the Government’s new refugee policy.
But this raises a related question: should bishops be party political? A clergy friend complained online:
I understand it’s controversial and I can see why some object, but the Bishops signing a letter condemning the govts ‘Rwanda’ immigration policy yet again portrays the Church as more Guardian than Gospel and I will now have to spend time apologising to conservatives who yet again feel unwelcome in their own Church. And still they say nothing about free speech, marriage, abortion, the fundamental nature of our two sex humanity and so on. Disappointed that yet again our focus is one sided.
I am in a heavily Tory area with a conservative MP as a churchwarden. I don’t think anyone in church actually thinks this was a moral thing for our nation to be doing.
And have the bishops been one-sided in their public statements? There is some mileage here. On the one hand:
The CofE responses to most social changes made by our “conservative” government has been opposition, including in same sex marriage, opposite sex civil partnerships, no fault divorce etc. London diocese spoke out against a tweet by one of their ordinands that attacked the “cult of Captain Tom” and disciplined him, in the face of much opposition.
On the other hand, it was widely noted that, in the debate about Brexit, there was only one bishop in the whole Church who expressed a view in favour, and many spoke out against Brexit. This does betray a lack of part-political balance in the College of Bishops overall, and this is significantly out of step with the views of Anglicans in the pews, 55% of whom voted for Brexit (in contrast to Catholics, who were 61% for Remain).
Part of the reluctance of bishops to speak up on political matters is the very polarisation of public discourse on these issues. Boris Johnson yesterday claimed that anyone who opposed the Rwanda scheme was supporting the trafficking across the channel. This is a ludicrous accusation, collapsing the whole series of complex issues into a simplistic ‘You are either for us, or you are for them’. This divisiveness in political discourse is deeply worrying; former Tory heavyweight Ken Clarke is worried that we are in danger of becoming an ‘elected dictatorship’ under Johnson’s defiance of any criticism, whether it is from others in the party or in the courts.
In the light of this, I am grateful for Justin’s leadership, and for the way the bishops have spoken up about this inhumane policy. I hope they will do it again.