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MORAL COMPASS

By flying asylum seekers to Rwanda, the UK is outsourcing yet another problem it helped create

Protestors against UK Rwanda deportation of asylum seekers
Reuters/Henry Nicholls
Protestors outside the UK Home Office in London, June 2022.
  • Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Cassie writes about the world of work.

Published Last updated

The UK government’s most recent plan to deal with asylum seekers is so controversial that some campaigners have asked whether its real aim is to stoke anger and division as a political tactic.

Whether or not that’s the case, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives really are attempting to get rid of people who seek asylum in the UK by putting them on a one-way flight to Rwanda. Their asylum claims will be processed in the east African country. They may end up living there indefinitely. Either way, they won’t walk the streets UK voters live on, or go to the schools their children attend.

It feels almost too obvious to point out that the UK, with its history of aggressive expansion while keeping its own island sacrosanct and insulated, created many of the problems it’s now unwilling to help solve. But the Rwanda deportations demand that the obvious be stated. The world is increasingly globalized for a host of reasons, but some of the biggest have countries like the UK at their heart: Imperialist powers that physically went out to other countries to create trade links and, very often, enact extreme exploitation.

The Rwanda plan is one of the most blatant recent examples of the UK’s unwillingness to deal with problems it created, but it’s not the first.

The plan for deportations to Rwanda

In April, British prime minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK had struck a deal to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda, paying £120 million ($147 million) upfront as well as processing, relocation, and flight costs for every individual. The idea was immediately condemned by human rights groups like the Refugee Council, and has since been criticized by everyone from religious leaders to the UN.

On June 15 the first flight, which alone reportedly cost £500,000 ($612,000) and was due to carry just seven people, was canceled minutes before it was due to leave, after the European Court of Human Rights issued an injunction to stop it.

The UK government defends the plan as “completely moral,” claiming that it will help to deter people traffickers, presumably by making the UK a less attractive destination for asylum seekers. In response to widespread criticism of the ways in which the plan violates human rights, Johnson has floated the idea—not for the first time a Conservative government has done so—of leaving the European convention on human rights which upholds human rights to life and liberty, as well as prohibiting torture and slavery, among other things.

Last week, Johnson’s ethics advisor resigned, not citing Rwanda specifically, but citing the prime minister’s “willingness to break the law.” Johnson may not replace him.

While the global refugee and migrant crisis is usually framed as one that disproportionately effects the West, in fact the biggest burden falls on poorer countries. The top five host nations of refugees and asylum seekers globally are Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany, according to the UNHCR. The US has 1.3 million asylum seekers, but only 340,000 people granted refugee status. Turkey hosts 3.8 million refugees and a further 305,000 asylum seekers, compared to the UK’s combined total of 223,000.

Generations of outsourced problems

The UK has a history of not wanting to deal with the problems it’s created.

One example is domestic waste. Two thirds of all UK plastic waste gets exported to be processed elsewhere. From 2002 that meant shipping it 8,000 miles to China. But when China became concerned about the pollution caused by this processing and banned imports in 2018, the UK had to seek other places to send it. Turkey, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand all became top destinations. The last three, noted the Independent, are in the top 10 globally for marine plastic pollution.

Of course, the UK isn’t alone in exporting its waste, but doing so isn’t a given. Germany and Japan, for example, both have highly-developed domestic recycling systems.

Along with other rich countries, the UK is also implicated in the system of “outsourced emissions,” whereby goods and raw material destined for consumption in the UK are manufactured or mined elsewhere, with those often-poorer countries experiencing the pollution, and often the climate change effects, associated with the emissions generated by that manufacture.

In a final example that links directly back to the Rwanda flights, the UK also has both a long and a recent history of interventions in other countries that have led to instability in those countries, and to people from them becoming refugees or asylum seekers in the first place. The long history of British colonialism and in some cases literal enslavement of peoples can still be seen at work in the instability of countries across the world, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Zimbabwe, to name just three. More recently, UK intervention—along with the US and other countries—in the Middle East has been a factor in the ongoing conflicts that continue to displace millions across the region.

Why does the UK get to avoid what many would call its responsibility to deal with the fallout of its consumption, foreign policy, and history? The simplest answer is, of course, power. The UK’s wealth and influential status in the world help inoculate it against the ills which many poorer countries suffer, even if it was responsible for the original harm. Another is simply geography: Because Britain is an island, it’s harder to reach than many countries. While the UK might have more historical involvement in, for example, Afghan politics than many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, those closer countries are where most Afghan refugees are living.

The UK’s geographic position also gives it a temperate climate, and though that’s changing, it’s much less likely to feel the full force of climate change than countries closer to the equator—at least for a while.

Of course, technology and democracy, not simply imperialism or any one country’s actions, have also driven globalization forward, nor are all of globalization’s impacts negative.

There have always been refugees from war, repression, or natural disasters. There have always been economic migrants, which is another was of saying “people traveling to find work or a better life.” But globalization has made these types of movements less local: Where before people might have traveled to a neighboring country on foot, they might now fly—if they can—to a place they’ve seen in thousands of news bulletins and spent hours researching on social media. A place they might already have family or friends. A place like the UK, or any of the world’s rich countries.

It is the UK’s history (not Rwanda’s) which makes the plan to export its asylum seeker “problem” so reprehensible, and the government’s refusal to acknowledge its historical and current responsibilites that make this particular divisive policy so cruel.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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