To understand UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s highly controversial policy of sending migrants to Rwanda – a policy that the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, says breaks international law – we need to start with a bizarre collection of pictures on social media.
They are a distraction, and that, in fact, is the point.
One clip shows Mr Johnson jogging at the 2021 Conservative party conference. Unfortunately, the footage also shows Mr Johnson getting out of a black Range Rover a few metres from his hotel entrance, so the "jog" lasts less than 10 seconds. It’s a staged performance for the cameras. A second picture shows him playing acoustic guitar with a capo. A capo – the Italian word for “head” – is a tight band that a guitarist clips across the strings to change the pitch. Unfortunately – again – Mr Johnson “plays” the guitar with the capo bridging the strings between his hands, meaning it is impossible to play any chords. Third, during English local elections a few weeks ago, Mr Johnson staged a photo opportunity walking his small dog, Dilyn. Again the pictures look phoney. Dilyn pulls at the end of a long lead in a way that real dog owners find odd, yet in dog-loving Britain any canine photo opportunity however cack-handed makes a remote political figure seem empathetic.
Photo opportunity gaffes are trivial, yet they reveal something about Mr Johnson’s peculiar character. He has always been a performance artist.
As a journalist, he famously wrote attention-grabbing stories, many of which proved to be nonsense. As a politician, he confects attention-grabbing stunts and announcements, including hanging from a zip wire while waving a British flag, bashing a bulldozer through a wall of fake polystyrene bricks, promising to build 40 new hospitals, and of course his fake jogging, fake guitar-playing and the rest.
All politicians stage photo opportunities, kissing babies and opening new bridges and buildings, but few do so with the degree of obvious performative phoniness that attends Mr Johnson. I can personally vouch for the fact that a number of TV make-up artists have confirmed that when they make-up Mr Johnson, check his clothing and hair, he will then stand in front of a mirror to mess up his hair and clothing to maintain an image of couldn’t-care-less.
What has this has to do with the serious problem of asylum seekers who risk their lives to cross the sea to Britain and are threatened with removal to Rwanda? Everything.
The plan – and Mr Johnson’s “plans” like his newspaper stories are always eye-catching but rarely live up to their billing – is to send “up to” 1,000 asylum seekers some 6,500 kilometres from the UK to Central Africa. The first Rwanda flight this month had 37 people targeted for removal. Legal challenges brought the number down to seven. Then the flight was cancelled. Zero deportations.
But Rwanda will be paid £120 million (almost $148m) up front plus operational costs. Those operational cost estimates range from £12,000 to £30,000 per refugee, but no one really knows. That’s because the Rwanda policy, like the Brexit agreement, or Mr Johnson’s bridge-building announcements and promises of 40 new hospitals are just guitar-playing with the capo in the wrong place. There is a lot of noise, no coherent plan and no tune.
The UNHCR insists the Johnson Rwanda “plan” is in breach of international law to "shift responsibility" for claims of refugee status and this is “unacceptable” and “incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention” on refugees. Mr Johnson insists there is no breach of international law. It’s like an echo of his “plan” to change the Brexit agreement with the EU, reneging on the trade arrangements concerning Northern Ireland called the Northern Ireland Protocol. That “plan” of change has been rumbling since September 2020.
Nothing has actually happened beyond the political performance art, although Mr Johnson’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, conceded two years ago that changing the Protocol unilaterally would indeed breach the law “in a specific and limited way".
So what ties together phoney jogging, strange dog walking, hanging from a zip wire and the inability to play a guitar? It is, yet again, “performance”. In every case, Mr Johnson’s genius has been to say or do something memorable, to announce, to promise, to plan, to posture. When the supposed policies run into the mud of reality, the row – the performance – rumbles on. The EU, supposedly left-wing human rights and immigration lawyers or obstructive judges, plus UNHCR “do-gooders” are then blamed.
But the posturing matters. With refugees and Rwanda or the people of Northern Ireland, our performative Prime Minister plays politics with people’s lives. Breaking international law, ducking out of international treaty commitments and the mental torture for refugees who think they have found safety in the UK is simply unforgivable.
Will 1,000 asylum seekers from the UK end up in Rwanda? Not soon, probably not ever. Will a few end up there, at enormous cost? Possibly. The only certainty is that the purgatory of political posturing will endure.