Britain's Rwanda farce tries to 'break' smuggling networks by harming their victims

Johnson's government is actively persecuting those who dare seek its help

A plane thought to have been used in an attempt to deport refugees to Rwanda at a base in Wiltshire, Britain, on June 14, 2022. Reuters
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Mere minutes before its scheduled take-off on Tuesday night from a military airport in Wiltshire, a Boeing 767 chartered by the British government was emptied of all seven of its passengers, male asylum claimants set to be removed to Rwanda. Earlier that evening, an out-of-hours judge at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a ruling barring the deportation of one of the men, setting off a chain of appeals by the other six to the ECHR and judges in London. Their unexpected success – several UK courts, including the Supreme Court, had already ruled the deportations could proceed – was a major blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as well as Home Secretary Priti Patel, the architect of the strategy to send asylum seekers against their will to Rwanda.

The ECHR judge's grounds for the ruling were that an application for a judicial review into the legality of the plan is scheduled to be heard in the UK High Court in July and, if it forces the government to reverse course, those deported now will have been deprived of any legal or practical means to reassert their British asylum claims. It is a reasonable judgement: better to see where British law firmly stands before claiming that it has your back.

The Home Office's callous handling of the seven men's cases, however, has sullied any sense of relief brought about by their sudden reprieve. One of them, an Iranian former police commander, claims to have fled to the UK after facing jail and torture in Iran for refusing orders to shoot protesters. He has expressed his alarm at being sent to a place where Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might easily find him. Another is an Iraqi who claims to be a former interpreter for the UK and US military. Both were scheduled on a previous flight, which was cancelled pending a UK court ruling, only to be rebooked onto Tuesday's. The repeated reversals in their fortunes have rendered the men despondent. What started out as a plea for refuge in the UK has turned into a new bout of persecution, as the British government vows to double down in its efforts to deport more like them on future flights.

Better to see where British law firmly stands before claiming that it has your back

The Home Office, said Ms Patel shortly after Tuesday's events, would "not be deterred...Many of those removed from this flight will be placed on the next."

At the heart of Ms Patel's strategy is a stated desire to "break" the people-smuggling business that profits off of the trafficking of refugees into Britain. Forcibly redirecting refugees to Rwanda to make their claims there instead, the government believes, would put asylum seekers off of Britain and remove the financial incentives of the smugglers who often transport them to British soil through dangerous means. In reality, even if Britain becomes an undesirable destination for many, the plan's targeting of single men risks in some ways making the human trafficking problem worse; new incentives are being created for men to bring women and children with them.

It goes without saying that the approach has proved popular among the hard-line flanks of Mr Johnson's Conservative party. And while it has been condemned publicly by the Church of England, and reportedly more privately by Prince Charles and several prominent British officials, the inflamed passions brought about by the public debate have only served the government politically at a time when Mr Johnson stands accused of law-breaking regarding his behaviour last year during Britain's Covid-19 lockdowns.

The intervention of the ECHR has also become a tool for Mr Johnson's populism. Government officials have, in briefings to the British press, framed the situation as one of a "foreign court" full of "Europeans" overruling the British legal system – never mind that the ECHR is a body of the European Council, of which Britain remains a member, and interprets the European Convention on Human Rights, a treaty drafted in large part by British lawyers.

Like the governments and groups from whom the deportees fled, the British government hopes to make an example of them and, in doing so, serve an extreme and divisive political ideology. And while it may succeed in depriving some smugglers of a payday, it will do little to diminish the total suffering experienced by those desperately seeking refuge and protection.

Published: June 16, 2022, 4:00 AM