Andrew Mitchell is MP for Sutton Coldfield and a former International Development Secretary.
The Government’s determination to tackle cross channel illegal immigration is creditable. No one can have anything but abhorrence and disgust for the people smugglers deathly business model. The Home Secretary deserves credit for her single-minded determination to stop this filthy trade.
But the Rwanda solution is impractical, likely to be ineffective and, above all, extremely expensive.
It is a myth that those crossing the Channel, and taking appalling risks in leaky boats, are African economic migrants looking for a cushy new life. If only that were true. The new plan to cart them off to central Africa makes no distinction between those fleeing persecution and economic migrants seeking to come here when they are not welcome.
Overwhelmingly, 87 per cent, are coming from four countries alone: Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And historically, 75 per cent of them will receive permission to remain in the UK as legitimate refugees who qualify for asylum status.
Rwanda is a poor country; one of the most densely populated in the world. They receive refugees from Burundi, the Congo, and across central Africa because they are a beacon of stability in their locality – around 130,000 refugees in a country of 12 million people.
If I may answer the question my friend the minister was unable to answer at the weekend, yes, I’d certainly be happy to live in Rwanda. The history of the last 28 years is one of progress, recovery and reconstruction. When the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place this June, Commonwealth leaders will see for themselves one of the greenest, cleanest most beautiful of capital cities, Kigali.
That, alas, is not the point.
Those who we seek to deport will not go to Rwanda willingly. I remember when similarly, we sought to expel so-called ‘Vietnamese boat people’ from Hong Kong in the late 1980s. Conservative ministers like Chris Patten and William Waldegrave were horrified at the pictures the media would procure of desperate people fighting the authorities putting them forcibly on to planes.
Those being deported will physically resist. They will super glue themselves to structures; the international media will show pictures of British officials forcing desperate people genuinely seeking asylum onto aeroplanes. Civilian planes may well not be willing to take off with detainees on board. Pilots won’t be willing to fly and their insurers won’t give them insurance.
So military aircraft, much needed for other activities, will have to undertake the task. Reluctant detainees on board will need to be handcuffed and manacled to avoid in-flight dangers.
Perversely, sending only single men may actually add to the “pull factor” we all want to discourage, by encouraging more people to come with either spontaneous or longstanding relationships.
Nor will people sent to Rwanda necessarily stay there; having already shown determination to start a new life in UK, they will start their long weary journey all over again. This is one of the reasons the Israeli government abandoned their attempt at a similar scheme with Rwanda.
For those arriving in the UK illicitly, once the scheme is up and running, there is a far greater likelihood of them disappearing within the UK unaccounted for and unaccountable.
And then there is the cost. We are already paying the Rwandan government a fee of £120 million and credible estimates, drawn up for the approach now abandoned by Australia, suggest it would be cheaper to put these poor people up in the splendour of the Ritz hotel.
Surely the Government won’t insult Parliament next week by asking for a vote in support of this policy without any idea of the costs involved? How would we explain this extraordinary lack of detail to our constituents?
So, what is the answer? There are four policy changes which Britain should pursue with vigour and which will largely have the desired effect.
First, we need to process initial claims in the UK and do so speedily. Rwanda deals with asylum claims in three months. We need to recruit more people to process claims in the UK. And we need to stop the ridiculous legal time-wasting circus which surrounds this process, leading to absurd legal delays.
Second, in the short term, the frankly appalling relations which currently exist with our nearest neighbour must be addressed. There are a wealth of excellent relationships at senior level with France and we need to re-energise these urgently. No serious progress will be made without France’s active cooperation or, at the least, passive acquiescence in what we need to do.
Thirdly, we need to introduce – as Lord Kirkhope, the minister for immigration under Michael Howard set out recently in the Lords – safe and legal routes for those seeking asylum. (He, as minister for immigration, holds the record for deporting the largest number of undesirables from the UK.)
David Cameron introduced safe and legal routes for Syrian refugees and more recently we have done it for Afghans and latterly Ukrainians. But such routes do not exist for others. If there are no safe and legal routes by which people can enter the UK, entry by definition will be illegal. This is not a tenable position.
Fourthly, we need to understand that this is part of a much bigger international problem. We need a new International Convention for refugees and migrants. The 1951 agreements are out of date; international travel has been revolutionised since then and climate change migration is likely to become an increasing push factor.
Without this new international agreement little progress will ultimately be made. Britain was central to negotiating the 1951 agreements and could be so again, using our pivotal role at the United Nations and the experience and skill of the world’s most effective diplomatic service.
I put this point to Boris Johnson on the 25th of July last year; a proposal he described as “excellent”. But nothing has happened since.
There is a better and more humane way of tackling the smugglers sordid and vile business model. Trying to bundle people indiscriminately onto planes for central Africa is a breach of our international undertakings, bad for our country’s and the Conservative Party’s reputation, eye wateringly expensive, and most unlikely to achieve its aim.