Suella Braverman wasn’t sacked from her post as home secretary three weeks ago because of her zeal in promoting the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda – a policy she once described as her “dream”. It was an intemperate attack she made on the police in the Times that led to her dismissal by the prime minister she had defied in making it. But anyone who thought – or hoped – that her replacement by James Cleverly would bring an end to this vicious, wrong-headed policy was mistaken. Rishi Sunak’s government remains wedded to its project of sending asylum seekers from all over the world to central Africa.
To that end, Mr Cleverly travelled to Kigali on Tuesday and signed a treaty with the Rwandan government. Last month, the UK supreme court ruled that the existing deal, based on a memorandum rather than a treaty, is illegal. A new monitoring committee to oversee the arrangements for detainees, and an appeals system staffed by judges, are designed to answer the court’s objections. In addition, ministers are expected to introduce legislation to the House of Commons. Depending on the formula they adopt, this is likely to declare Rwanda to be a “safe third country”, and remove some legal protections from asylum seekers.
The One Nation caucus, which represents 106 Tory MPs, made it clear on Tuesday that it will closely scrutinise any such law. This is a small mercy. The government may not have the votes it needs to remove the right to judicial review, and allow ministers to ignore the European convention on human rights (ECHR) and other treaties. For this reason, ministers may settle for a compromise that would disapply the Human Rights Act from asylum applicants, without disallowing individual challenges to deportation orders.
If this argument over how best to circumvent laws ensuring that refugees are protected were limited to the Tory ranks, it would be one thing – with the resulting divisions perhaps even a source of satisfaction to the government’s critics. But the damage caused by the Rwanda scheme goes wider than this. Writing on X at the weekend, Dominic Cummings claimed that the policy, which was unveiled in April 2022, was conceived as a diversion – because the issue of small boats is in reality so hard to deal with. Having boxed themselves in with repeated pledges to crack down on people smugglers and so on, while failing to work constructively with countries including France, ministers were desperate for a way out.
According to this view, the policy, like Frankenstein’s monster, took on more life than its creators intended. Ministers may have been playing for time and favourable headlines. But for MPs on the Tory right, and their allies beyond the party, the prospect of sending immigrants away before their claims were processed proved irresistible. The temptation may even have been increased by the fact that their opponents were certain to be defenders of human rights. The government’s failure to reduce net migration, as it pledged to post-Brexit, has only added to the desperation on the party’s right.
The Rwanda policy, mercifully, is not popular. The public is sceptical about the reckless promise to deal with cross-Channel migrants – most of whom come from a small number of countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – by forcing people to board planes to Africa. But the longer this folly continues, the more time and energy are wasted while xenophobic and nationalist sentiments are fuelled by a plan with echoes of earlier schemes for repatriation. This is a dismal policy and ugly politics.