For the Tories, Refugees Are Just Pawns in a PR Game

This week's announcement of a plan to offshore refugees to Rwanda was a cynical attempt to divert from Tory scandals – once again, reducing some of the world's most vulnerable people to pawns in a PR game.

Migrants arrive at Dover port after being picked up in the Channel by the Border Force on 14 April 2022 in Dover. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

With questions intensifying earlier this week over whether the Prime Minister and Chancellor should stay in their jobs after being fined following a police investigation into ‘Partygate’, the timing of Boris Johnson’s announcement of a £120 million plan to address the ‘Channel migrant crisis’—through the UK’s first-ever offshore asylum-claim processing deal with Rwanda—was viewed by many as a manoeuvre at least part-inspired by self-preservation.

‘It’s a distraction technique to draw attention from the Prime Minister’s current situation,’ said Bridget Chapman, a spokesperson at Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN), who also described the plan as ‘yet more performative cruelty.’

Her view is one echoed by several refugee aid groups and political figures appalled by the proposal which they see as yet another government bid to demonstrate an unwaveringly harsh approach to reducing migration to the cheer of the right-wing press, epitomised by the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The idea of processing asylum claims somewhere offshore has been floated on and off for a number of years, but only ten days ago Refugee Minister Lord Harrington dismissed the possibility of these plans realistically getting traction.

‘We’re having difficulty enough getting [refugees] from Ukraine to our country—there’s no possibility of sending them to Rwanda,’ he told LBC Radio.

Nonetheless Johnson sprung the announcement of this in a speech yesterday in Kent, the county that hosts most asylum seekers arriving via the Channel. The plan envisages a proportion of them being sent to the African country still largely remembered for the mass ethnic genocide that took place there in the mid-1990s.

While also putting the Navy in charge of Channel patrolling and claiming the number of arrivals of migrants via the route is out of all control, Johnson used a mixture of scaremongering and blame shifting to pre-emptively excuse why the scheme is likely to be delayed.

He argued that the success of the plan would not be impeded by its lack of feasibility, huge costs, or dubious legality, but due to ‘such a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers who for years have made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the government.’


Using familiar tropes about migrants, Johnson specified that the plan would target asylum seekers who’ve arrived since the beginning of the year, focusing primarily on single men under forty deemed ‘economic migrants’. But given that refugee resettlement schemes to the UK—besides the two Ukrainian ones—have to all purposes been stopped, these casual ‘economic migration’ labels about asylum seekers are ones that charities tire of hearing.

Chapman describes Afghan refugees in the UK struggling to understand how Ukrainians can be supported in inviting fleeing family members while Afghans with young relatives forced into hiding from the Taliban because of priority-listed former work aren’t allowed to do the same.

The critical response to the plan more broadly was swift. While international law doesn’t explicitly prohibit offshore processing arrangements, its legality hinges on the avoidance of ‘refoulement’—which means refugees being returned to situations where they could face harm or persecution, explains Dr Elizabeth Mavropoulou, an international human rights solicitor and programme manager at the charity Human Rights at Sea.

This leaves an area of ‘legal silence’ which some parties might try to see as an implicit permission for offshore processing plans. As such, countries may be inspired to follow Australia’s now shuttered offshore processing scheme—despite its record of human rights breaches.

However, ‘International law imposes restrictions in the design of these mechanisms,’ Mavropoulou continues, ‘which is why offshore or third country processing schemes to date have presented insurmountable challenges including extortionate costs to the taxpayers.’ Australia’s offshore processing of 300 asylum seekers was estimated to have cost around AUS$1.5 billion, which is roughly 800 times the cost of processing asylum claims on the mainland.

With this in mind, its proponents could, at best, call the UK’s Rwanda plan a ‘deterrent’ to Channel crossings—but one whose effectiveness in its stated goal is far unproven. As Robina Qureshi, founder and director at the charity Positive Action in Housing, points out, ‘deterrent’ implies a threat of punishment, even though seeking asylum isn’t a crime under international law, which sets no jurisdiction regarding travel routes either.

Rwanda’s Record

Denmark has also shown interested in offshore processing in Rwanda, but has not actually implemented plans. In part, this is due to international concerns over Rwanda’s own human rights record.

Summing these up, UK director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) Yasmine Ahmed told the BBC: ‘What we at HRW and others international organisations have documented is the clear repression in Rwanda not only of political dissidents where we have seen extrajudicial killings, torture, and indefinite detention, but where we’ve also seen stark violence against refugees.

For example, she continued, ‘A number of refugees were killed for protesting about their conditions and dozens were imprisoned. So we’re not talking about sending people to where they’ll be safe; we’re talking about sending them to a place where there is clear documentation of human rights violation against individuals, including refugees.’

There are, as such, factors beyond cost that might encourage the British government to want to process asylum claims offshore—not least avoiding further scrutiny and more of the scandals that have so far followed investigations into what the UK’s treatment of asylum seekers has been like, be it the abuse cases at detention centres like Brook House or substandard living conditions in repurposed army barracks.

Sadly, the government’s policy of entwining immigration policy with PR strategy aimed exclusively at the right-wing media means the opening of genuinely safe routes—the only thing that would truly help refugees—is a long way off. Sure to ensue are further scandals and legal challenges over abused human rights. But at least the distraction of Rwanda may keep Johnson in a job for some time yet.