Britain today is drastically different to the Britain I came to as a nine-year-old refugee almost 30 years ago. I left Kenya after burying my father, and travelled to Britain without my mother, with siblings I hardly knew. Somali families like ours fleeing war through Kenya in 1993 were often separated: some would never meet again. But this was a small price to pay for a potential new start somewhere else — and the chance of peace and security.
How easy my journey was compared to the challenges facing asylum seekers today. In a generation, I don’t recognise the nation we have become.
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Last Tuesday, the British government failed to deport some 130 asylum seekers to Rwanda after a late intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. But it’s determined to try again. This week, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab plans to unveil a new Bill of Rights that could give ministers powers to ignore injunctions from the ECHR and speed up the removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Home Secretary Priti Patel insists the Rwanda plan is a “world-first” international partnership between “two outward-looking countries”. Except it is not a world first: it has been tried before and it failed.
The Rwanda plan is in fact a carbon copy of Israel’s “Voluntary Departure” programme that ran between 2014 and 2017. Its aim was to remove Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, all of them young men, to Rwanda and Uganda. These refugees, some of whom had lived more than five years in Israel, were given the choice between a life of misery in an Israeli jail, often somewhere in the desert, or to be given around $3,500 to be “voluntarily” deported to Rwanda or Uganda.
Yet Rwanda never fulfilled its side of the bargain. A harrowing report by Israeli researchers published in 2018 found that deportees from Israel had their travel documents confiscated on arrival in Rwanda, and were denied access to an asylum seeking process. Many were robbed of their money or incarcerated in a “hotel” on arrival. Just seven out of Israel’s thousands of deportees remained in Rwanda: the rest continued their life-threatening search for asylum elsewhere.
One Eritrean refugee, Isayas, described his experience: “I landed in Rwanda. We got off the plane… someone who works at the airport took all of our documents. We asked him why? They responded that they’ll give us something else instead… but they never gave us any documents… Once you leave Israel, no one knows who you are… They put us in a prison they called a hotel, a guard kept watch over us so we don’t leave… But the State of Israel says that you can get documents and receive asylum and that you’ll have a good life, like a dream.”
For a recent Tortoise podcast, I spoke to an early victim of the Israeli policy. Saimon Fsaha fled Eritrea aged 17 and worked in Israel for six years as a street cleaner before being deported. He told me, through a translator, that the Israeli government had promised there would be a refugee camp in Rwanda where he could apply for asylum — but on arrival there was no such thing.
Unable to find work, Fsaha was forced to undertake a horrific journey through South Sudan, Sudan, Libya and eventually to Germany where he was granted asylum. He endured war in South Sudan, eluded Eritrean spies in Sudan and was imprisoned in Libya. At one point, he fell out of a truck and was beaten by the drivers until he could no longer move his legs. His injuries were so severe he had to be carried onto the small boat taking him and 280 others to Europe in October 2015 — which had to be rescued in the Mediterranean.
Despite his traumatic experience, Fsaha is exactly the kind of person who would be marked for deportation to Rwanda under the government’s new scheme. Yet not only is the Rwanda policy shockingly inhumane: it also won’t solve the problem of migration to the UK. In fact, Fsaha explained that the Rwandan authorities were actually very helpful in facilitating the onward movement of refugees to Europe. They had no obligation to detain or process people, nor to help them find work or opportunities. So why would anyone stay?
It is absolutely remarkable that Priti Patel, having visited Rwanda, seemed to have no knowledge of Israel’s former policy. And it’s equally ludicrous to think the Rwanda policy will act as a deterrent, forcing asylum seekers to reflect more carefully before getting in boats across the channel. This fundamentally misunderstands the precise purpose and determination of these people.
You will often hear the proponent supporters of this policy say, well, what is the alternative solution? Because the reality is that immigration is a hard issue to resolve for any nation, whether on the Mexican border, in Israel or in Australia. In my eyes, there are at least four possible strategic approaches, but they require a serious government focusing on the issue in a practical and sensible way, not sticking its neck in the sand and hoping that the trend of people seeking a better and safer life will just go away.
The first is to understand the route of travel and the way failed states are facilitating migration along it. Libya, for example, effectively trades in slaves and boats across the Mediterranean. There are plenty of people willing to prey on the desperate along these migration routes, so having a European-led presence along the coast at all times would be a step in the right direction to stem the flow.
The second is to have a coordinated European quota system which would allow for different nations to accept a certain number of asylum seekers every year. The smugglers will understand their business model no longer works if there is a viable route for people, with established processes, a clear criteria, and some assistance from UN refugee agencies. Germany and France already take more refugees than we do, it is time to step up and meet our international obligations.
Thirdly, we need to establish bilateral agreements with nations whose citizens have no right to seek asylum, so that they can be returned safely. This will allow for more effective and fair removal once appeal processes have been exhausted. On top of that, we need to invest heavily in border force staff, processing centres abroad, and administrative infrastructure so that better decisions can be made in a timely fashion. We saw just how far Britain fell short in this regard when we struggled to process Ukrainian refugees. And finally, it’s time to replace tough, empty rhetoric with competent leadership.
As someone who has lived through the asylum process, I would not wish it on anyone: the insecurity, the instability, the lack of certainty, the life of precariousness and lack of hope. There is absolutely no evidence that the Rwanda policy will be a deterrent: it is simply pure cruelty dressed up as the only viable option.
This is a country which I call home, but I am ashamed to see what is happening. That so many yearn to come here is the highest compliment to pay a nation, not a sign of weakness or ineffectual state. I’m ashamed that a government would think that this is a way to treat human beings, knowing and fully understanding that it will in all likelihood fail.