UK-Rwanda asylum deal: Another chapter in Britain's far-right shift
Marie Le Pen’s strong showing, despite her ultimate defeat, in this month’s French presidential election has prompted refreshed worldwide commentary on the rise of the far-right in European politics. Meanwhile, the existing Conservative-led UK government has continued a steady, below-the-radar creep into an ultra-nationalist, authoritarian terrain.
The UK government’s recently announced “UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership” stands out in this regard, even as eight other “undemocratic and ethnonationalist” bills inch closer to becoming law.
The partnership promises to forcibly deport people who claim asylum in Britain to a country over 4,000 miles away, without prospect of return. It has been condemned as “shockingly ill-conceived”, “shameful” and “cruel and inhumane” by activists, human rights organisations and politicians.
Even so, the Nationality and Borders Bill, which lays groundwork for it and more horrors besides, has already been strong-armed through Parliament. If enacted, it will undoubtedly break international law.
"Yet simply through its announcement, the Conservatives have achieved another key goal: to shift the barometer of 'acceptable debate' ever-further to the right"
Human rights advocates are determined to halt such plans. The government openly expects numerous legal challenges to the Rwanda deal. At least one has already been mounted. Yet simply through its announcement, the Conservatives have achieved another key goal: to shift the barometer of “acceptable debate” ever-further to the right.
Chief cheerleader of the partnership, home secretary Priti Patel, stands on the shoulders of Enoch Powell, Nick Griffith, Nigel Farage, Theresa May, and countless other bricklayers and architects of Britain’s intentionally “hostile environment” towards migrants and asylum seekers.
The result has been a near-total normalisation of the UK’s already-existing “cruel and inhumane” immigration regime, which includes many policies first established by Labour Party MPs. It boasts decrepit “reception” hotels unsafe for children, arbitrary and indefinite detention, rat-infested housing, traumatising application procedures, years-long waits, an employment ban, meagre legal aid, and derisory voucher schemes.
But unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury’s assertion in his criticism of the Rwanda deal, the latest proposals are not out of sync with “British values”.
Now, a slogan once fit for the far-right National Front – ”give immigrants a one-way ticket to Africa!” – is not only thinkable, but say-able and doable for the nation’s most senior politicians. The geography matters: in the deeply racist worldview of many Conservatives and their supporters, “the dark continent” is seen as the archetypal “third world” source of threatening immigrants. “One-way ticket” – a quote swifty taken up by Britain's press – is byword for “send them back”. Now, a policy built on hate speech is headed for the legislature.
The phrases used by the Conservatives to justify their plans replicate those used by far-right populist leaders. At a 2017 rally, Italy’s Matteo Salvini vowed to hand refugees and migrants “a one-way ticket to send them back”.
Recent French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour claimed in 2020 that all unaccompanied child migrants were “thieves, killers and rapists”, similarly declaring “we should send them back." His later qualification that he meant “some” not “all” child migrants echoed Donal Trump’s infamous, apparently vote-winning, "some of them are good people, I assume" remark about undocumented Mexican immigrants he otherwise characterised as "rapists" and "criminals".
Hundreds of people gathered outside the UK Home Office on Thursday to decry the government’s new policy of shipping asylum seekers to Rwanda.— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) April 15, 2022
The New Arab went to speak to some of the protesters 👇https://t.co/2aYHbmPVyP
These far-right fixations hinge and build on longstanding myths of the immigrant rapist, which were reanimated as refugees fled to Europe in 2015. Defending the proposed partnership from light scrutiny in the House of Commons this month, Patel made the same tactical play, declaring:
“[The Labour Party] writes letters to me frequently to stop us removing people with no legal basis to be in the UK, including many foreign national offenders—rapists, murderers, paedophiles, you name it—along with asylum seekers.”
The verbal coupling of asylum seekers with criminality is politically motivated and intentionally misleading. Under current UK law, any route or form of entry is viable for people who claim asylum. Yet politicians’ use of “illegal'' to describe such entries has been forceful, repetitive and largely unchallenged.
The UK news media now simply parrots Party lines. As spectres of “evil criminal gangs” are used to justify human rights abuses, the softer rhetoric of “economic migrant” has been retired. “Illegal migrant” has reentered the style book.
"Smugly Janus-faced, Patel frames deportation to Rwanda as at once so horrifying it will 'deter' potential migrants, yet so wonderful as the forcibly deported can expect 'world-leading' support in starting a beautiful new life"
Smugly Janus-faced, Patel frames deportation to Rwanda as at once so horrifying it will “deter” potential migrants, yet so wonderful as the forcibly deported can expect “world-leading” support in starting a beautiful new life. The gangs are the problem; their victims will be punished.
All of these rationales have been tested and refined in a strategy used by populists worldwide to both gauge and change public attitudes. The September 2020 immigration policy “leaks” that prompted outrage from lawyers provoked a different public reaction: a YouGov poll found 40% of UK adults – and 62% of Conservative voters – thought offshore asylum processing was “a good idea”.
At that point, plans had been explicitly touted “as similar to the Australian model” – prompting criticism specifically on those grounds. In March 2021, the Prime Minister framed the now-galvanising plans as “humane”. Despite handing the man who created them a prominent Border Force role, comparisons to Australia’s disastrous “offshore detention” system are now flatly denied.
The messaging is more refined than the plans themselves. They remain so vaguely sketched, their opponents are spoilt for talking points: the partnership is not civil service-endorsed; Home Office employees are threatening conscientious objection. It is a Memorandum of Understanding, not a Treaty, to avoid formal review.
No one will be drawn on Rwanda’s shocking human rights record, which includes the imprisonment and murder of 12 refugees. Patel cannot explain who will be deported, how it will be assessed, how much it will cost, or if it’s legal.
No matter: 303 MPs heard enough to know they backed it. They are eager to move on to other votes, and hand even greater authoritarian powers to the state, including to revoke citizenship without notification, restrict migrants’ access to legal representation, racially discriminate against Travellers, Roma and Gypsies, crush the right to assembly and criminalise protest.
Resistance to each, led largely by grassroots coalitions and lawyers and activists regularly smeared in the press, has been tireless, vocal, and at important junctures, effective. Yet the sheer number of new laws proposed is proving difficult to oppose. Labour, the official opposition, has been neutered by Conservative attacks. It sits on the fence, fearful of looking “too left” while the nation lurches right.
"As protofascist plans to rewrite immigration law hang in the balance, it is past time to wake up to the reality of modern Britain"
These manoeuvres are all taking place in plain sight. Yet an international press comfortable naming Le Pen, Salvini, Trump, Orbán and more as “far-right”, “ultra-nationalist”, and “neo-fascist”, steadfastly refuses to recognise their British counterparts. Although far-right parties are on the rise across Europe, UK Conservatives have no equivalents to fear – those potential voters have already turned blue.
As protofascist plans to rewrite immigration law hang in the balance, it is past time to wake up to the reality of modern Britain.
The longer we hesitate, the further the centre ground will move beneath our feet, dragging “acceptable” policy, rhetoric and norms ever closer to catastrophe.
Siobhán McGuirk is a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-editor of Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry (PM Press, 2020).
Follow her on Twitter: @s_mcguirk
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