On Wednesday morning, the UK Border Force vessel Searcher pulled into harbour at Dover, on Britain’s south coast, with its latest find, a group of more than 30 migrants seeking to settle in the UK. Earlier that day, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a charity, had already rescued 55 others. It was a record day for Channel crossings this year, after a record month in March.
The next morning, the UK’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced her proposed solution, the so-called “New Immigration Plan”, as she stepped off an airplane, to great bemusement back home, in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
Under Ms Patel’s plan, single male migrants, including asylum seekers, arriving in Britain illegally will be flown to Rwanda, where they will have their claims processed, but where they will also be encouraged to settle down for good. The £120 million ($157m) idea is fraught with problems. The opposition Labour Party has already begun to question the cost and practicality of the scheme, and humanitarian organisations have questioned its legality. Restricting the plan to single men raises its own questions – what makes the conditions in Rwanda safe for them, but not for families?
The timing of the plan is also suspicious – Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, is embroiled in scandal after being fined for attending an illegal birthday party while the country was under coronavirus restrictions. A wild plan to send migrants to Rwanda is certainly a convenient headline-grabber.
But a humanitarian agenda has not been part of the British government’s attitudes to immigration for many years. Another brainchild of Ms Patel’s, the Nationality and Borders Bill, would see any migrants who knowingly enter Britain illegally charged with a criminal offence. Ms Patel argues that refugees who want to avoid being criminals (or being sent to Rwanda) they must stick to Britain’s “safe and legal routes”.
The problem is that such legal routes are largely unavailable. Britain offers no formal way to apply for humanitarian visas. Even one-off schemes, such as a plan announced last year to resettle Afghans fleeing the Taliban, cannot manage to get off the ground. While many of those arriving by sea are deported, some are allowed to stay because their grounds for asylum are reasonable. Seeking Britain’s protection may be a right under international law, particularly as the UK is signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, but for most people the only way to get it is to break British law.
It is not easy to deal with the waves of migrants heading to Britain’s shores. But the government’s long-time deterrence-based strategy, to create a “hostile environment” that aims to make life as difficult for non-permanent migrants as the law allows, has not worked. Last year, Channel crossings reached record numbers.
There is little reason to think that the prospect of being sent to Rwanda will make a difference either. If anything, it may worsen the human trafficking Ms Patel claims her plan will fight, by incentivising single men to bring women and children with them.
In truth, there is no quick fix to Britain’s migrant crisis. The best solution is to navigate it for now, by managing it compassionately in co-operation with other European countries (notably France, where Channel crossings begin), to work with UNHCR on legal resettlement plans and to invest, over time, in stabilising the places refugees flee. Countries in the developing world that bear most of the global refugee burden, such as Turkey, Pakistan and Iran, need earnest support to make conditions liveable for those who are there.
To get to a place where such solutions are possible, politics must mature to the point where countries like Britain stop viewing their refugee woes as one-off crises, criminal threats or the domain of charity. The refugee problem, like climate change, is a global challenge. Solving it requires a sense of collective responsibility.