The outrage over the proposal misses the bigger point
The outrage that greeted the Government’s proposal to process illegal channel crossers in Rwanda is quite understandable. A poor country several thousand miles away that suffered a devastating civil war less than 30 years ago and has a doubtful human rights record is an odd place to be sending people escaping Iran or Iraq or Sudan.
But this is also missing a bigger point. The Rwanda plan is designed to be a game-changer, a cutting-the-rope moment. If the plan is implemented successfully, which remains unlikely, it will not have to last very long.
If would-be asylum seekers coming to the UK see that they are ending up in central Africa instead of Pimlico they will stop trying to come, or at least stop coming via the channel. They are likely to prefer a safe country in Europe, from which all of them are coming, to a safe country in Africa.
This is what happened when Australia turned back the boats and made it clear that nobody coming illegally by boat would ever get to stay in Australia. The boats stopped. Closer to home the EU deal with Turkey also involved turning back boats and processing asylum claims offshore.
Whatever the protestations of the UN and the refugee NGOs there is no rich democratic country that can live with 50,000 people a year entering the country illegally in such dramatically visible fashion. It undermines faith in Government and the whole immigration system and is a vivid recruiting sergeant for populist parties, (especially when people with an asylum background become involved in Islamist terror acts).
Countries have rights as well as individuals and the right to control who arrives in the country is an existential one that has just played a major part in the UK leaving the EU.
This principle is, however, in direct conflict with the absolute right of people to come here to claim asylum. Therein lies all the moral, legal and logistical confusion of our current asylum system. Rich countries like the UK accept in theory an obligation they cannot honour because thanks to the liberalisation of asylum rules in recent decades hundreds of millions of people could legitimately claim asylum here, as Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke pointed out 15 years ago, without even factoring in economic migrants.
Many in the refugee lobby do not think this is a problem because either explicitly or implicitly they favour borders that are as open as possible. But Governments and democratic majorities do regard the size of the potential refugee population as a big problem and so do their best to stop people coming here to claim the right to asylum. We pursue a game of cat and mouse, clamping down on lorries only for people to switch to boats. And so it goes on.
Sensible politicians realise this hypocrisy is unsustainable. Rory Stewart, one of the Government’s sternest critics, said yesterday that “there is an argument for what the Government is doing”. The argument is for a controlled system of safe, legal asylum in which Governments, advised by the relevant NGOs, select those most in need from around the world.
That is why the Rwanda proposal is arguably more ethical than the current free-for-all which favours fit young men (75% of those making the crossings) with the money to pay the smugglers and the energy and ingenuity to beat the system — but only if it is linked to a bigger story of humane control.
Government communication has been strong on the unfairness of the current system but has, so far, missed the opportunity to sell this bigger story. For that requires explicitly ramping up legal asylum routes. Nearly 200,000 people have come by these routes in the past 20 years. But if we are going to be properly draconian about clamping down on illegal entry we need to boost the numbers to 40 or 50,000 a year.
This could be via resettlement schemes (such as those for Syria and Afghanistan and now Hong Kong) or sponsorship schemes (especially led by family members already in the UK) or other imaginative proposals that the NGOs could be usefully employed dreaming up instead of just getting angry at rich country governments.
Humane control is legal, fair and also popular. Initial reaction to the Rwanda plan in the UK was less than enthusiastic, probably partly because it seems, and is, so bizarre and has been so roundly attacked in the media. But the channel boats remain very unpopular and more than two-thirds of the public do not think people who arrive illegally from a safe country should be allowed to claim asylum.
Some sort of deal to stop the boats might yet be possible with post-election France. But in the absence of that a version of Rwanda off-shore processing is not the impossibility its critics hope, and if it works watch others emulating.
David Goodhart is head of the demography unit at Policy Exchange. He is also a commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission but writes here in a personal capacity.