In a grotesque new turn for British refugee politics, Home Secretary Priti Patel has this week officially announced a plan to deport an unlimited number of refugees in the UK to Rwanda. The policy has been something of an open secret — Patel has supposedly been working “day and night” on it for eight months. But the impossibly cruel scheme doesn’t have a hint of originality in it. Some of the wealthiest governments on earth came up with this bad idea years ago — Patel has simply repackaged it.
Deported to Hope House
On Thursday, Patel held a press conference in Kigali justifying the proposal. The British asylum system, Patel said, is collapsing due to “evil people smugglers, profiteering by exploiting the system for their own gains.” Flagging recent deaths and dangerous human trafficking in the English Channel, she hailed her plan as “the biggest overhaul of our immigration system in decades,” and pitched it as a life- and tax-saving “new and innovative” solution.
She explained that, from now on, asylum seekers arriving in the UK will be relocated to Rwanda. If found to be refugees, they will be funded by the UK for up to five years to resettle in the desperately poor African nation. Privately owned Rwandan hotels — including the ill-named Hope House — will be leased to accommodate the deportees. The UK will provide an initial £120 million to Rwanda to finance education and skills training for those resettled. Most details of the scheme, however, remain secret. Patel explained this secrecy as a weapon against people-smuggler adaptation — but in reality the plan is riddled with shortsighted holes.
Patel’s choice of President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda as the destination for asylum seekers isn’t random. Kagame has a brutal record of silencing dissent at home, and a proven (but volatile) commitment to cold diplomatic reciprocity abroad. The Financial Times has openly called Rwanda a “mollycoddled client regime” of the West, which for geopolitical strategic reasons “adds trappings of legitimacy to Rwanda’s contemporary form of one-party rule, in which incumbents use patronage, oppression and control of electoral machinery to maintain power.”
Patel described contemporary Rwanda as a model of African development, though this is an incomplete picture of her party’s relationship with Kagame. While the president has been an honored guest at Tory party conferences, some of his behavior — like sending assassins to try to kill politicians in the UK — has also seen him (lightly) shunned by them. It is perhaps no coincidence that he is now back in the Tory government’s good books; aside from loan repayments, a great deal of recent UK aid money to Rwanda has a troubling recent pattern of ending up in non-Rwandan pockets and projects.
That Priti Patel’s own family were victims of Britain’s divide-and-rule machinations in colonial Uganda adds a further layer of cynicism to this already dismal picture. To get a sense of how Patel’s plot will go wrong, it’s instructive to look at some of its inspirations.
“You Scratch My Back . . . ”
Patel’s plan is not the first time Rwanda has agreed to act as a dumping ground for the West’s refugees in exchange for money and favors.
Through the 2010s, the Israeli government ran a vicious campaign against African refugees, famously labelling them “infiltrators” and “a cancer in the nation’s body.” Kagame struck a quiet deal in 2014 with then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow the Israeli government to fly Sudanese and Eritrean refugees to Rwanda.
Testimonies from some of those sent back paint a grim picture of zero support, violence, theft, and human trafficking. Most immediately left Rwanda and attempted to reach Europe. Netanyahu promoted and supported Kagame’s diplomatic initiatives internationally as thanks, but the deal still embarrassingly fell apart when Israel tried to scale up the deportations in 2018.
That same year, the nominally social democratic opposition in Denmark proposed establishing refugee reception centers outside Europe. The party rose to power on the back of its anti-immigrant campaign a year later.
Then, in 2021, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced Denmark too had reached an agreement for Rwanda to take virtually all of its asylum seekers in exchange for more development aid, stronger diplomatic representation, and exchange programs. The Danish immigration minister Mattias Tesfaye has cynically tried to promote the refugee deportations as a kind of class struggle, arguing that the working class should not have to pay for refugees. Tesfaye knows this is a bogus argument — offshore detention costs far more than simply processing and resettling refugees, and does not stop the movement of refugees to Europe. And for all its triumphant anti-immigrant populism, the Danish agreement with Rwanda — like Israel’s and the UK’s — is secretive and completely nonbinding. It simply expresses a wish for Rwanda to host a reception center for asylum seekers from Denmark.
All these schemes share the same original source of inspiration. Twenty years ago, the Australian government was responsible for introducing the so-called Pacific Solution. This rotten legislation excised thousands of islands from the Australian migration zone, and saw the Australian Navy throw asylum seekers from Australia into detention centers in countries like Nauru and Papua New Guinea. These camps were run by for-profit companies for billions of dollars.
Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister in government when John Howard’s conservative government was engineering the Pacific Solution, recently became one of Patel’s advisors. In addition to the plan itself, much of Patel’s rhetoric is taken from the handbook of Downer’s government. In fact, her emphasis on saving lives and stopping crime is lifted almost word-for-word from Downer’s government’s early 2000s soundbites around asylum seekers.
Writing in support of Patel’s scheme, Downer wrote that “to solve a migration crisis, you have to smash the business model . . . a highly profitable criminal racket being run by unscrupulous gangs.” He neglected to mention his preferred solution is just a different business model: a highly profitable legal racket run by unscrupulous groups like Serco, G4S and Wilson. In Australia, the average taxpayer now funds this business model — in which the horrific mistreatment of refugees has become normalized — to the tune of more than AU$1.2 billion per year.
Downer became notorious for his strong-arming of poorer countries into accepting rotten deals that benefited large corporations. As one former US ambassador working in the Pacific bluntly put it, “the Howard and Downer government were shills for the corporations.”
But the arrangements didn’t always go smoothly. Australia’s relationship with Papua New Guinea partly soured in 2016, and its Supreme Court found the Manus Island detention centers to be illegal. Thousands of the deported detainees subsequently brought a class action against the Australian government, which paid out a settlement of tens of millions of dollars to avoid an embarrassing airing of its misdeeds.
The Grim, the Botched, and the Costly
Aside from their general moral repugnance, all the precursors to Patel’s scheme share the same features: the effort to outsource border control to poorer client states is always violent, it inevitably falls apart, and it is enormously expensive. Sold during election campaigns as tax-saving initiatives to put a stop to evildoers, they quickly become money-pit enablers of rotten regimes and multinational tax dodgers.
This model of outsourcing settlement programs only benefits right-wing populist politicians and corporate profiteers. For this reason, it stands to remain popular, despite the cruelty, greed, and incompetence involved. In the face of this, it’s up to the Left to seize back the terms of the debate. This means fighting the catastrophes and inequalities facing so many and refusing to allow the rich decide who gets thrown on the global trash heap. Until it does, refugees will continue to pay for the worst crises of capitalism with their lives — and the working class elsewhere will continue to bankroll their suffering.