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Rishi Sunak Confronts the Court of Appeal over Offshore Processing Plan

06 Jul 2023
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
05/06/2023. Dover, United Kingdom. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gives a press conference after visiting a Border Force cutter boat in the Dover Strait. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street/

Despite the promises of Brexit, immigration is up in the United Kingdom (UK). The immigration debate is just getting started, with Australia’s former “stop the boats” campaign clear in the minds of many Europeans.

In the UK, the Court of Appeal’s recent ruling against the removal to Rwanda of asylum seekers who arrive unlawfully in the country has thrown the government into disarray. The outlawing of offshore processing in the small southern African state, 6,600 kilometres from the UK, not only has wrecked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to cut immigration, it has called a halt to plans by other European countries to adopt similar policies. The validity of wealthy nations handsomely paying third countries to undertake asylum processing is now the subject of international debate.

Offshore processing of asylum seekers to Australia was, of course, the creation of John Howard’s government in 2000 when 433 would-be migrants were flown to the remote Pacific island of Nauru to have their claims determined. Soon after, another offshore processing centre, paid for by Australian taxpayers, was set up on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The move was accompanied by a strong campaign to “Stop the boats,” a phrase now echoed almost a quarter of a century later by the British government as it seeks to halt the surge of small boats bringing desperate migrants across the English Channel from northern France.

After the trauma of Brexit, Britain could not find a European or Middle Eastern country to take on the task of handling its unwanted migrants; the government turned to Africa and finally alighted on the tiny state of Rwanda just south of the equator. At first glance, Rwanda is the kind of model country that many old Africa hands would love to live in – clean, well-organised and tidy, the streets well-swept. In the capital, Kigali, public transport runs efficiently and the crime rate is low. The city is the very antithesis of modern Durban or Cape Town, where foreign visitors need to be very wary when and where they take out their wallets.

Rwanda encourages a strong sense of community. ‘”Umaganda,” or community work, is compulsory one Saturday each month; people get together in their neighbourhoods for a general clean-up, removing rubbish, sweeping the roads, and making sure everything is tidy. It is hard to imagine “umaganda” operating in scruffy old London or in parts of Sydney, though it might prove a good idea. It also appears the Rwandans are encouraged to keep a close watch on their neighbours, dubbing them into the authorities if they spot minor law breaking. It was perhaps this that led Michela Wrong, author of Do not Disturb, to describe Rwanda to the BBC as a “repressive and frightening country.”  But, in itself, that does not make the country unsafe. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been successfully operating a transit camp in Rwanda, helping large numbers of asylum seekers who have escaped the terrible conditions in war-torn a Libya to rebuild their lives, in some cases teaching them to drive or learn new languages. A fair proportion are now resettled in Canada and in European countries such as Belgium, Sweden, and Norway.

Rishi Sunak is taking the Court of Appeals decision to the UK Supreme Court and is confident that the ruling will be overturned. He remains optimistic a flight will take off from London for Kigali with an asylum seeker on board before the end of the year. There are some grounds for his optimism since the one judge who opposed the verdict of the Court of Appeal was the Lord Chief Justice who will preside over the Supreme Court hearing. Sunak is likely to reject the opportunistic attempt by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, who urged Sunak to put one-day secondary legislation through parliament declaring that Rwanda was a safe place in which to undertake offshore processing. This ruse appears to have gained little support, even from the small number of Tory MP’s seeking Johnson’s return to parliament.

A careful reading of the long judgement by the Court of Appeal indicates that, even if the Supreme Court were to overturn the ruling, the issue will remain a live one far beyond the British Isles. The Court of Appeal ruling was complex and reflected a wide variety of views.  Johnson, Sunak, and many Tories read into it, perhaps correctly, that the safety of asylum seekers was the defining issue. The decision centred on the fact that there were no hard and fast assurances that asylum seekers would not be returned to the countries from which they had fled. Sunak’s advisers believe this issue can be resolved, but the ruling indicates that others have reservations.

Despite their successful operation in Rwanda, UNHCR welcomed the Court of Appeal’s decision to stop the flights. In evidence to the court, it had expressed concerns about “the externalisation of asylum obligations.”  These comments are already resonating throughout Europe where a number of countries, Including Denmark, Greece, and Austria, have been contemplating either a deal with Rwanda or another African country.

There is likely to be an ongoing battle between right wing Conservatives and the European Court of Human Rights, which has vigorously opposed the Rwanda deal. It was the first to block a flight from Britain to Rwanda last year, leading to demands by the right-wing home secretary Suella Braveman for Britain to withdraw from the Convention, a move backed by many right wing Tory MPs. Sunak has pulled back from the brink on this plan as he seeks to restore better relations with the EU following the damage caused by Brexit. But even if the Supreme Court finds in his favour, the weight of public opinion will inevitably lead to another case being brought before the European Court.

Meanwhile, after the hottest June since records began in the UK, the peak season for a surge in cross channel illegal arrivals in small boats is upon us. Proprietors of rundown hotels along the English South Coast are enjoying the fruits of extended stays of asylum seekers whose board and lodging is funded by the British taxpayer. Interceptions of small boats attempting the hazardous crossing of the Dover Straits, and not infrequent drownings, excite media attention, but Britain’s immigration problems run much deeper, as the latest figures show.

Cross channel asylum seekers only account four 3.5 percent of immigrants, most others arrive by plane or passenger ferries. When Britons voted narrowly for Brexit in 2016, Boris Johnson promised to “take back control” of borders to curb rising migration blamed on open borders with the EU. One of his notorious campaign claims was that millions would arrive from Turkey if the UK remained in the EU. However, statistics for 2022 show net migration at 606,000, an increase of almost 120,000 or 24 percent over the year before – roughly double the level at the time of the Brexit vote. Now that many East Europeans have returned home, India has replaced Poland as the biggest source of migrants to Britain. Large numbers of working visas have also been issued to Pakistanis, Nigerians, and Filipinos, reflecting a big demand for labour in a country where unemployment is below four percent.

The UK government has estimated that it will cost in the region of AUD$340,000 per asylum seeker to process each person in Rwanda, though no financial forecast has been released. You might expect that any sensible finance minister who is contemplating a similar system would, at least, pause for thought.

Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is editor at large with Australian Outlook.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.