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The end of Rwanda

Rishi Sunak’s admission that no failed asylum seekers will be flown to Africa before the election concludes a senseless, costly shambles

Image: TNE

Nigel Farage may not be right about much, but he came pretty close just three weeks before the Brexit referendum.

When the then-UKIP leader spoke at a debate hosted by the Daily Express, 18 Albanians had just been rescued off Dymchurch in Kent following an attempt to cross the Channel.  He warned that unless Britain acted swiftly and decisively, “then I am afraid we are in for a summer where we will see bodies washed up on the Kent beaches.”

Given the forum at which he was speaking – alongside Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kate Hoey against Labour Remainers Chukka Umunna and Siobhan McDonagh and businessman Richard Reed – it sounded like more Vote Leave nonsense. Immigration had been Farage’s big weapon in his long fight to get Britain out of the EU and he had been supported in his scaremongering by the right wing press, most especially the Express, which was then in full migrant demonisation mode. 

We had seen tragedies in the Med, we had wept for little Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old whose body was gently carried in a soldier’s arms up the beach from a Turkish shoreline (apart from the Express, the only paper not to put the picture on the front, preferring “EU blamed for migrant chaos”).

We had shivered at Katy Hopkins’s callous dismissal of drowned refugees as cockroaches. But did we seriously think that was going to happen here? It seemed preposterous. 

No, British beaches were not awash with bodies that summer. But Farage was right that more would try to cross the Channel in flimsy boats – though leaving the EU didn’t stop the flow. Tens of thousands have done so and so far, almost 250 have died in the attempt.

Something had to be done to stop this terrible gamble on the waves. A sensible government, one that was not at war with its former EU partners, might have looked at more humanitarian routes to the EU for those claiming asylum, at closer co-operation with France and at ways of processing would-be migrants on the continent rather than once here.

For some, the problem was immigration, per se, and here was a “humanitarian” way to sell the hostile argument: we have to stop the boats to save lives. But how?

In April 2022, Boris Johnson reached into the mad ideas locker in which he had previously found island airports, garden bridges, water cannon and roads from Ireland to Scotland, and came up with Rwanda. Pay the Africans a few hundred million to deal with our “problem”. 

Don’t bother looking to see whether the asylum-seekers have any need or right to be here, whether they might have something to contribute to our society. Just turn ‘em away, as Scott Morrison had done in Australia, or put them on a plane to Africa.

This fag-packet policy was instantly hailed by the Express as a “bold plan” in the first of its 62 splashes on the subject over the past two years. (These are, it should be said, in addition to the paper’s prodigious output on net “legal” immigration – which is running at just under 700,000 and is of far greater concern to far more people.) The courts soon thought otherwise and there was “fury” when they blocked the first mooted flights – both from “senior Tory MPs” and Home Secretary Priti Patel. Boris insisted there was no turning back. 

But his days were numbered. Liz Truss popped in for a few days at No 10 and her new Home Secretary Suella Braverman started eying up more countries willing to take our discards. We would not be put off by “Euro” courts – a deliberately misleading characterisation of the European Court of Human Rights, an international, not “foreign”, court which has nothing to do with the EU. Truss moved out and Rishi moved in, promising to get a grip on the migrant crisis, to stop the boats. This was the way to win the election. 

Stopping the boats was one of the five key promises on which he asked to be judged. He could have stuck with that ambition, junked the Rwanda nonsense and sought a new solution to the problem.

Instead he made it the hill on which he chose to die, cheered on every step of the way by the Express (and others, though to a lesser extent).  When the courts decided that Rwanda wasn’t a safe place, Rishi decided to pass a law saying it was. 

Tory MPs rebelled – and a minister resigned – because the new law was too lenient, Tory peers rebelled because it was not only nonsense, but broke international law. They were unpatriotic and “defying the will of the people” – as the Express huffed in two lead stories – even though the policy had never been put to the people at any election and was regarded as unworkable and of poor value by most of those questioned by opinion pollsters. 

And, anyway, if it ran counter to European human rights law, we could leave the ECHR and join Russia and Belarus as the only countries on the continent to reject its jurisdiction. Civil servants and lawyers who questioned the policy or sought to put the case for asylum seekers were similarly unpatriotic. 

Suella had been to Kigali, looked at a building site and admired cushions. This was both a safe and beguiling place to live while also being a deterrent to people thinking about climbing into those dinghies. 

Meanwhile, Rishi struck a separate deal with France for more patrols along its coastline. But while for one day this was wonderful, the right wing papers quickly concluded that you can never trust the French.

For £480m, couldn’t they stop the boats? They must do more with “our millions”.  For pity’s sake, stop the boats.

Back in Rwanda fantasyland, flights would take off in the spring, the summer, the next summer. But never did. Tens of thousands of people were put up in hotels and hostels at taxpayers’ expense, helping one hotelier onto the Sunday Times rich list. 

But, be in no doubt, it’s really going to happen. The “Euro” court might back down (it didn’t), the flights were ready to take off, the first passengers had been identified. The law scraped through and as the country went to the polls in the local elections this month, people were detained ready for deportation. They would be flying out this July, come what may.

And then, and then. On Wednesday the prime minister called an election. On Thursday, the first of campaigning, he admitted that there would be no flights to Rwanda before polling day. With Labour committed to scrapping the policy on day one, that almost certainly means there will be no flights to Rwanda full stop.

So let’s look at Friday’s Daily Express. A front-page splash headline? Naturally not. 

Buried away on page 11, on the third election spread, is the ever-hopeful heading “Rwanda still on if Tories triumph”. I guess you could call it keeping the faith.

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