Another week and another low for Boris Johnson’s government. The desperate attempts from the Conservatives to traffic highly vulnerable asylum seekers to Rwanda is an important milestone in the moral decline of modern conservatism. That the plane did not leave, and the Prime Minister and his rump of the party appear determined to press on with the callous and self-defeating policy, means the moral decomposition will merely be expedited.
Let us first consider the realities of the policy, before looking at the battles ahead. As set out by immigration barrister Jennifer Blair, the refugees being transported to Rwanda have been chosen randomly. There is no rhyme or reason to those who receive this drastic fate. Those on the plane that failed to depart this week included a former Iranian policeman who was sentenced to jail in Iran for refusing to use fire-arms at peaceful protestors in 2019. Another was a 54-year-old Iraqi who has previously been tortured.
What is the government’s argument? It says the scheme will act as a deterrent. There is no evidence to support this proposition and experts suggest that, instead of deterring people, it will simply mean these desperate individuals will attempt to make the long journey back from Rwanda to the UK. They have done a similar journey once – the prospect of living in a different continent, with no communal or cultural links, deeply concerning human rights records and a lack infrastructure is unlikely to deter them now. Indeed, when Israel entered into a similar agreement with Rwanda in 2014 and 2017 almost all of the 4,000 detainees sent there left for Europe again, opening up a huge market for people traffickers in Libya.
Quite apart from the practicalities, the government’s argument fails on its own terms. If Rwanda is a sanctuary, and the refugees will thrive, then how in any way is it a deterrent? It can be one or the other. The reality is this is a punishment: people being used as commodities in the government’s attempts to divide the public and demonise refugees and immigrants. It is the ugliest of political moves.
The government know the deterrent argument is weak, so instead they say: what’s the alternative? This represents the advocacy skills of a five year old (being unkind to five year olds). If this was a harmless policy it might be worth a punt. It’s costing hundreds of millions (the cancelled flight cost £500,000). In pursuing this policy, randomly selecting individuals to transport to Rwanda, they are directly harming the victims of war, rape and domestic violence.
The fact that the policy is accompanied by crowing Conservatives, who appear to be salivating at the prospect of sending terrified asylum seekers half way across the world, makes the whole episode even worse. It would come as no surprise if the likes of Peter Bone and Andrea Jenkyns had bottles of champagne at the ready. There is a gloating, a celebration of others’ utter misery, which represents a dangerous underbelly of our politics and, indeed, public consciousness.
They have not succeeded just yet, and the champagne remains on ice. But now they are turning their eyes elsewhere. In the backbench Conservative MP WhatsApp group, MP for Ipswich Tom Hunt – and perhaps the most unlikeable Tory in a tough competition – has said “it is time to leave” the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, Boris Johnson did not rule this out himself, responding by saying that “all options are on the table”. This is despite the vast majority of refugees on the Rwandan flight relying upon domestic law, rather than international treaties.
Even so, the change in tone represents the further shifting of the tectonic plates within the Conservative Party. The convention exists to protect individual rights, a conservative notion. During the second half of the 20th century, the issue of human rights transcended party politics. It was a Conservative lawyer, David Maxwell Fyfe, who drew up the ECHR to make true our commitment to ensure the horrors of World War Two never happen again. This built on Winston Churchill (our current Prime Minister’s hero) arguing that “in the centre of our movement stands the idea of a charter of human rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”.
More recently, Dominic Grieve QC – a recent Conservative attorney general – argued that the Human Rights Act 1998 has “improved standards” and there was no case for change. Quite apart from anything else, membership is a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement: are the Conservatives going to risk peace in Ireland to deport refugees to Rwanda? Indeed, a prominent Tory named Boris Johnson once said of the ECHR: “I am a supporter. It was one of the great things we gave to Europe… I’m not against the ECHR or the Court because it’s very important for us.”
Simply put, do the modern Conservatives want to be on the side of Russia and Belarus – the only two European countries not signatories to the ECHR – or with the rest of the enlightened world? As war rages in the Ukraine, every Conservative MP who urges the government to leave the ECHR must answer this question.
Labour must be strong and hard-headed in its opposition. The policy does not work, it is expensive and it is morally wrong. There are alternatives: spend the vast sums being handed to Rwanda on clamping down on traffickers and open up effective humanitarian pathways (such as those in Ukraine). There is a moral abyss at the heart of our government, and Labour must not shirk from the challenge of standing up for decency and setting out an alternative path.