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Cruise Ships and Rwanda Red Meat: the Conservative Leadership Contest

Brad Blitz laments the ‘migrant-bashing’ slogans of contenders Truss and Sunak which do nothing to address the increasing numbers of refugees seeking asylum in the UK

Priti Patel launches the Rwanda plan to resettle people seeking asylum in the central African nation. Photo: REUTERS/Jean Bizimana/Alamy

Cruise Ships & Rwanda Red Meat The Conservative Leadership Contest

Brad Blitz laments the ‘migrant-bashing’ slogans of contenders Truss and Sunak which do nothing to address the increasing numbers of refugees seeking asylum in the UK

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are trying to capture the Conservative heartland with harsh proposals on immigration and asylum. Inside their bag of tricks, we find more removals to Rwanda, caps on refugee numbers and the withholding of aid to countries that refuse to readmit unsuccessful asylum seekers.

What we will not find, however, is a cure to the increasing numbers of asylum-seekers arriving on UK shores. 

I have previously argued that the Government’s ambition to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda is both unlawful and impractical.

Rwanda has neither the administrative capacity to process large numbers of applicants, nor can it offer long-term protection. The fact that only 285 people were granted refugee status in 2020, while almost 130,000 enjoy international protection in Rwanda, should set alarm bells ringing.

But for Sunak and Truss, out of sight means out of mind. 

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The Government remains unable to get to grips with the recent trend in boat migrants arriving on UK shores. Of the 28,528 boat arrivals last year, the majority were from Iran, Iraq and Eritrea – long-standing refugee-producing countries. 

Both Sunak and Truss wish to respond to this situation – Sunak by issuing a cap on refugee numbers and returning unsuccessful applicants; Truss by increasing staffing within the Border Force. Neither approach will deliver the miracle cure. 

It only makes sense to talk of a cap on refugee numbers, if you operate a resettlement scheme, like the US and Canada. Otherwise, you need to prevent people from reaching your borders, which the UK has repeatedly failed to achieve.

In theory, the UK Government could engage in more interception at sea, but the Channel crossing is not long, and this would require considerable investment, and equally important, an agreed point to which refugees could be returned.

This then begs the question: what of Anglo-French cooperation? Again, as we see from the jams around Dover, it is not going well. 

If Sunak blows smoke, Truss blows hot air

Adding insult to absurdity, Rishi Sunak is suggesting that rather than place asylum-seekers and refugees in hotels, they might be housed on cruise liners. While the hotels currently used by the Home Office’s partners are truly dreadful, the cost of commandeering ships to house refugees is surely far greater.

This knee-jerk proposal raises a series of problems, from maritime insurance, to the management of contagious diseases and viruses, as we saw with the pandemic to the challenge of flying in support workers, food and suppliers. 

Sunak’s suggestion that the UK can use a more restrictive refugee definition will likely be challenged by courts and does not address the fact that the UK grants humanitarian protection in large numbers to those who do not qualify for refugee status and relies on the UN Refugee Convention to do so.

This means that while individuals granted humanitarian protection rather than refugee status may have fewer entitlements, including the length of time they may stay in this country, it does not automatically bring numbers down. Sunak’s initiative will at best move people from one category to another, but not see them removed as he wishes.  


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The idea that the UK can remove larger numbers of unsuccessful asylum seekers, is yet more smoke and mirrors from the Sunak camp. Not only do we have readmission agreements in place, which enables removals, but in situations where individuals cannot be removed, there are largely very good reasons, including the fact that they are nationals of failed states, or will face persecution upon arrival. Whether or not they receive asylum in the UK, their claims are rarely bogus and most will be at great risk from their country of origin. Thus, removing people to such countries would violate international law. 

Enter Liz Truss who appears willing to say anything to attract votes, including promising to expand the Rwanda option to other countries – but she won’t tell us which ones, only that she will work to further undermine international law by taking on the European Court of Human Rights. 

Truss declares that she will increase the number of border guards by 20%, without explaining the significance of their role in deterring arrivals, if at all. She has also not addressed the fact that on her watch, desperate Afghan women and girls have not enjoyed the protection she promised, following her negotiations with Taliban interlocutors in Doha. If Sunak blows smoke, Truss blows hot air. 

The proposals bandied about by Sunak and Truss should be recognised as bankrupt slogans from a government that has consistently failed and refuses to learn from its mistakes – let alone listen. 

Any politician recommending the Rwanda plan, or its application elsewhere, should be treated with great suspicion. The contestants for the Conservative leadership, and the post of Prime Minister, are only offering the party faithful more migrant bashing, rather than thought-through policies aimed to correct the asylum system their government helped to wreck. 

Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy at UCL

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