Why Sending Refugees to Rwanda is Wrong
On April 14th the British and Rwandan governments announced an agreement: the British government would pay Rwanda at least £120 million in development aid, and Rwanda would accept an unspecified number of asylum seekers arriving in the UK. UK Home Secretary Priti Patel justified this agreement on the grounds that too many migrants were crossing the English channel by boat, many of whom were relatively well-off. She promised to resettle the most vulnerable refugees living abroad, including an unspecified number currently living in Rwanda.
This post will present three reasons why the above deal is unjustified.
First, at least some of those transferred will likely be refugees who will not receive protection in Rwanda: Home Secretary Priti Patel stated that the “vast majority” of those arriving by boat to the UK will be eligible for forced transfer to Rwanda, but data from the Home Office indicates that the majority of those arriving by boat are later given refugee status in the UK.
If most who arrive by boat are refugees (even according to the government’s own evaluation), and the vast majority can be transferred to Rwanda under the deal, some of those transferred will be refugees. Refugees in Rwanda are given very limited rights, with roughly 90% required to live camps, and so in practice unable to work. Lack of work leads to food insecurity, with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stating that it only has 2% of the required budget to ensure refugees obtain basic needs.
The second reason to reject the deal is its lack of transparency, partly due to lack of transparency in Rwanda. While there are some aspects of the Rwandan government that are transparent – transparency for health outcomes is strong, which is why we can be fairly certain that life expectancy and food security has soured over the last two decades – the lack of civil liberties means conditions for refugees are difficult to evaluate.
If most who arrive by boat are refugees (even according to the government’s own evaluation), and the vast majority can be transferred to Rwanda under the deal, some of those transferred will be refugees.
For example, in 2019 refugees in Rwanda protested against the slashing of food rations, leading to eleven refugees killed by the police, and other refugees arrested for “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan government.” Refugees are unlikely to speak out if they suffer from malnutrition again. Even opposition parties are unlikely to advertise any shortfalls; the government has discretion over which opposition parties can register, the media is run by the government, and the killings of opposition members is not uncommon.
As a result, the UK government and its voters are unlikely to find out the mortality rate amongst those who are transferred. In other words, if UK voters are paying to have refugees transferred to a country where many will die, they will never find out.
The final reason to reject the deal concerns Patel’s claim that sending refugees to Rwanda is justified because they are (a) not the most vulnerable refugees and (b) the UK will then resettle very vulnerable refugees to the UK, including refugees currently living in Rwanda.
To understand why this justification is poor, we need to diverge a moment onto a related topic: what we have strong moral reason to do.
In general, we have strong moral reason to place ourselves in a position where we are more likely to do the right thing, even if we could have done a better thing. The philosopher Holly Smith illustrates this point using the example of Professor Procrastinate. Professor Procrastinate is deciding whether to agree to review a paper, but if she agrees she won’t do it (she’ll procrastinate), while if she doesn’t someone else will review it instead. Professor Procrastinate shouldn’t agree to review the paper, given that she won’t get the job done. She faces a psychological barrier which she should account for when determining what to initially do.
Here’s how this relates to refugees. The UK is currently faced with at least these two policy options:
1. Grant asylum in the UK to refugees who arrive or
2. Force refugees who arrive to live in Rwanda, make sure the refugees are minimally safe
in Rwanda, and then resettle the most vulnerable refugees to the UK.
Voters and policymakers should pursue the first option rather than the second. Even if the second option will create a better world compared to the first (and even that’s not clear) the second option probably won’t happen. Just like Professor Procrastinate, the government might intend to resettle refugees and ensure those in Rwanda are safe, but it likely won’t. It won’t because of an important psychological barrier amongst policymakers and voters: they are abysmal at caring about refugees abroad, at least for very long. In contrast, policymakers and voters are relatively good at caring about refugees who do arrive. That is why the UK does grant asylum to most who arrive by boat, even as it resettles very few and slashes aid abroad. It is why Home Office staff are strongly opposed to sending refugees to Rwanda even while never complaining about the lack of resettlement spots, and why even the openly-xenophobic Daily Mail highlights how unethical transferring refugees to Rwanda is while opposing resettling any refugees who are currently in Rwanda to the UK.
Even if the proposed policy would be better than the status quo, the government ought to account for what it will actually do.
Given the fact that the government probably won’t actually resettle as many as they claim they intend to resettle, but does currently grant asylum to most who arrive, there are good reasons for voters and policymakers to pursue a policy of granting asylum to those who arrive, rather than transferring them to Rwanda with the intention of later helping others in need. Even if the proposed policy would be better than the status quo, the government ought to account for what it will actually do.
Now, this argument might seem odd; the government is accounting for what it will actually do, because it doesn’t care if few refugees are resettled or that refugees transferred to Rwanda will be unsafe. Unlike Professor Procrastinate, if the government doesn’t keep its promises that won’t bother it. However, I think that many voters (including those who wish to limit the number of refugees arriving) are not quite so callous. They want to control immigration without sending people to their death, and don’t feel comfortable with a policy that transfers refugees to Rwanda and doesn’t resettle those who are very vulnerable. Such voters have good reason to oppose the government’s policy.
Mollie Gerver is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Economy at King's College London.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.