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Keir Starmer has boxed himself in on Rwanda

Has he got a plan? Credit: Getty

May 11, 2024 - 8:00am

Sir Keir Starmer has announced that a new Labour government would scrap the Rwanda scheme “straight away”. At an event in Dover with the recently defected local MP Natalie Elphicke, Starmer said he would use the money saved from scrapping the scheme to hire extra investigators and other border agents.

The idea behind the Rwanda scheme is to make Britain an exceedingly unattractive place to seek asylum compared to its closest European neighbours. Many asylum seekers leave France or the Netherlands for a better life in the United Kingdom. The Rwanda scheme, in effect, says that their choice is not between life in France or Britain but between France or Rwanda. Even if not everyone who crosses into Britain will be sent to Rwanda, the small possibility of being sent there might be so unattractive as to discourage crossing over from France.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions on the effectiveness of the scheme, but some reporting, albeit largely anecdotal, has indicated that the policy is already having an effect.

Sky News reported that some asylum processing centres in Britain are getting quieter. A young man from Somalia told a reporter that “the people are scared of Rwanda”, and were trying to evade deportation. In another report by LBC, a Syrian man who arrived in the UK via a small boat in 2022 said some of his friends were “trying to go to Dover to go again to Europe” to avoid being ensnared in the scheme.

In Ireland, the scheme has been widely blamed for recent entries of irregular migrants across the border from Northern Ireland. The country’s Justice Minister said that the vast majority of these arrivals were fleeing the UK due to the Rwanda scheme. In a recent poll, 72% of Irish respondents believed this to be the case. Consequently, a majority of the Irish public have called for border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Even 52% of Sinn Fein voters in the Republic want there to be checkpoints on the border with Northern Ireland to deter migrants.

These — still preliminary — data suggest a powerful psychological effect of the scheme, which in effect is what a deterrent is meant to be. A nuclear deterrent is not deemed ineffective because it is hardly ever deployed — quite the contrary. There don’t need to be all that many deportations to Rwanda for the scheme to make an impact.

Keir Starmer’s proposed alternatives to Rwanda wouldn’t have the same psychological effect. Starmer promises better, quicker, and more competent processing of asylum claims. But the fundamental difference is that such claims under Labour would be processed in Britain. The last Labour government recognised the psychological effect of offshore asylum processing, with then Home Secretary David Blunkett calling for such a scheme for the whole EU.

It is understandable why Starmer has said he will scrap Rwanda. It has attracted a high level of negative publicity over the last two years, not least due to the judicial interventions deeming it unlawful. It is unpopular with Labour supporters. It has attracted criticism for violating the principle of processing asylum claims in the country of arrival.

Nonetheless, immigration is of high public salience. The Channel crossings can lead to horrific human tragedies. Starmer’s speech recognised that there was intense public anxiety over the issue. Immigration and asylum have also been a long-running area of policy weakness for Labour from the perspective of voters, though its reputation has recently improved.

For the last couple of years, the Rwanda scheme has been theoretical due to being bogged down in the courts. In breaching the norm that asylum claims be processed in the country of arrival, it was condemned for violating human rights.

Now, the scheme is real, and its impact will be measurable. It is quite possible the scheme will be a complete failure. But there is also a chance that it could act as a deterrent, at least in part. If the scheme is (somewhat) effective on these terms, then scrapping it immediately could be politically difficult.

I suspect that Starmer’s team recognises this. There are rumours that they are exploring using off-shore migrant processing — if not in Rwanda, then perhaps somewhere else. Starmer has a reputation for not keeping his promises, to put it mildly. So, it’s eminently possible that he could bring about a plan that looks much more like the Rwanda scheme than Labour activists expect.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

richardmarcj

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Maximus Decimus Merridius II
Maximus Decimus Merridius II
16 days ago

The only change we are going to get is for the even worse.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago

Terrifying thought. Things could get much uglier under Starmer, and likely will.

Matt M
Matt M
16 days ago

Please stop mixing up “offshore processing centres” which are to temporarily hold illegal immigrants whilst their claims are assessed and the Rwanda scheme which is a permanent resettlement scheme for illegal immigrants entering Britain.

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
16 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

So where is Starmer going to send the failed asylum seekers then?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
16 days ago

He won’t be putting any in his spare room; you can bet your shirt on that.

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
16 days ago

None will fail. All will be granted leave to remain.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
16 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

I thought they had to be processed in Rwanda, even if it moves at a snail’s pace.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
16 days ago

Never has a seemingly successful political leader been so bad at politics.
Sorry Keir, you have no instinct for the game and are incapable of nuance. Watching the speech yesterday, what was completely overlooked was that the boats embark in French jurisdiction and the French authorities have limited motivation to want them to stay. How are you going to ramp up law enforcement against the smuggling gangs there?
But in terms of deterrence, the migrants knows that Ireland has a similar system to the UK: permissive. So Dublin doesn’t have Rwanda then that will become the next big destination- Dublin is already having to emphasise that the UK is a ‘safe country’ after all. All swing voters see is that Labour would rather be politically correct than do anything about the issue.
As for the EU, the Syrian guy who’s wife and young daughters drowned in the Channel last week. Well, they had claimed asylum on Sweden and had just been booted out…
Keir panders to his left voters in one breath but can’t find any compromise on Gaza until far too late in the day such is the vehemence of his party and their voter’s problem with Israel. He rarely gets it right but will win by default due to the phenomenonal current British trend of negative voting against the Tories.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
16 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

He looks more and more like a bot in human form. Maybe he’s been body-snatched and currently lives somewhere else in outer space

Carol Forshaw
Carol Forshaw
16 days ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Starmer’s pleasure at the defection of Natalie Elphicke to his party is another example of his lack of political nous. He should never have accepted her. It is the equivalent of Sunak welcoming Jeremy Corbyn.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
16 days ago

He’s an idiot to make that announcement. Everyone knows that having more investigators will do absolutely nothing and even worse, know it’s a classic political fake action.
If this Rwanda thing catches on – and the evidence will come from the number of boat crossings, a live piece of data – he’s going to have to repeat that he’ll scrap it and even worse he’ll be asked endlessly what he’s going to do with the people.
All he had to do was sit tight, wait & see, and if it’s good then grab it with “improvements”.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago

Nothing new here as he’d made this clear for some time. One suspects though his restatement probably tested in some focus groups and reflective that majority think it’s a huge waste of time and money too. Public may yet see a few on a plane but it’ll just illuminate even more how pathetic this strategy has been. In meantime no slowing of the Boats.
The main impact of the Rwanda initiative to date is i) made some dodgy politicians in Rwanda richer. They’ll try to fleece us as much as poss before any change in Govt ii) got migrants in the UK awaiting processing scattering – some to Ireland as we know, but many, many more into the Black economy. Well done the Tories and all the mugs who think this was going to address the problem.

Phil Mac
Phil Mac
16 days ago
Reply to  j watson

And what if the boats did slow, or Ireland went mental about it causing their problems? Or even more fun, what if loads in the EU start it too?
it’d be entertaining looking back.

John Murray
John Murray
16 days ago
Reply to  Phil Mac

This is it for me. The Rwanda scheme seems incredibly impractical and unlikely to work, but the Irish losing their minds over tents along the Liffey and calling for border checks has been a very decent laugh.

AC Harper
AC Harper
16 days ago

If you choose to navigate by the immediate political ‘optics’ then eventually you will be drawn down a political cul-de-sac and look very silly. You can no longer rely on people forgetting your mis-steps so you are caught bang to rights.
A quote attributed to various people: “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”

Jake Raven
Jake Raven
16 days ago

Starmer is heavy of rhetoric but light on detail. It’s easy to say he’s going to ‘smash the criminal gangs’ but doesn’t explain how.
And even if the criminal gangs were successfully smashed, others would take their place.
The gangs are successful because illegals want to come to Britain, stop the pull factors and there would be no reason for them to want to come.

D Glover
D Glover
16 days ago

 If the scheme is (somewhat) effective on these terms, then scrapping it immediately could be politically difficult.

Not really. In this scenario he has just won an election, so he can do anything he likes. He won’t be facing the electorate again for another five years.
The only people he’d have to fear are his own backbenchers who might depose him if he’s not lefty enough.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
15 days ago

Starmer could box himself in with a damp paper bag; he is without any doubt the most vacuous, wooden, uninspiring, nonentity that has ever run for PM.
If the Rwanda policy has another four to five months of runway before an election then it should be pretty clear if it is an effective deterrent, and if it proves to be so then he’ll do a reverse weasel on this one, as he does on everything else when the practicalities get tough. He is a man defined not by his own policies (because he has none) but by his reaction to others. Pathetic really.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
15 days ago

I’ve always thought that Gruinard Island would make an idea processing centre.

The prospect of arriving in the UK and then being sent to a cold wet, ex-bioweapons testing site off the west coast of Scotland to languish in 1950’s style soviet accommodation blocks (to be constructed) and eat bland, grey institutional food in a draughty communal refectory (to be constructed) and then flown back by C130 to you CoO if your application failed from the islands airstrip (to be constructed) would act as a pretty good deterrent to all but the hardest souls.

Frankly any of the western isles would do . . . “Welcome to Scotland . . .” a phrase guaranteed to strike terror into the heart on any illegal.

Liam F
Liam F
14 days ago

indeed. and to help reduce costs the asylum seekers could constuct their facilities

Martin M
Martin M
14 days ago

When I first read your post, I thought it said “Grauniad Island”. I thought you were proposing that Guardian journalists should process asylum seekers….

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
15 days ago

Another excellent policy announcement from the soon-to-be Prime Minister!

Paul T
Paul T
15 days ago

What policy announcement was that? Did you see Eurovision; the European public are entirely at odds with the booing antisemitism of the Queers-for-Palestine brigade at the event and so awarded Israel huge points with the UK public giving them 12 points. NOBODY agrees with you.
You are just a deluded troll looking for any kind of negative feedback. Why don’t you just eff-off from this site and flush yourself away.

Martin M
Martin M
14 days ago
Reply to  Paul T

A bit harsh, surely!

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
14 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

But only a little bit.

Paul T
Paul T
15 days ago

The man is a large plastic bag caught by one handle on the end of a flagpole. When the wind dies it’s limp and lifeless. When the wind blows it is full of air and appears massive and noisy and angry. Its still just an empty plastic bag uselessly blowing whichever way, caught on a stick in the wind.

Martin M
Martin M
14 days ago

Speaking as a resident of Australia, we had a very similar scheme to the UK’s “Rwanda” scheme. It seemed to work.

Allen Z
Allen Z
14 days ago

Let’s say the Rwanda plan works to deter Illegals. Does that mean the Conservatives have a chance of winning in the next election?