Dignity is the least anyone should expect

Would you like to take a road trip to Rwanda? In a Mercedes? With a single refugee as your passenger? Staying in five-star hotels along the way?  Sound expensive? Well it won’t cost as much as the Government’s new scheme to house refugees in vast camps 4,000 miles away from Britain. 

Announced with great fanfare as ‘the solution’ to global migration it’ll more than likely prove unworkable. Cruelty is expensive.  As well as being immoral and unjust.

The Government has no idea how much it will cost. In a remarkable twist, Matthew Rycroft, the Home Office’s most senior civil servant, publicly wrote to Home Secretary Priti Patel saying he couldn’t sign off the policy as value for money. Examples from around the world support his concern.

Australia spends about £2 million a year per refugee held on the island of Nauru in the Pacific.  Even if the Rwandan version turns out to be a tenth of the price that’s still £200,000 per refugee per year.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have made much of the £4.7 million a day hotel bill for asylum seekers.  But that works out at about £130 per day per refugee or about £47,000 per year.  Obviously accommodation isn’t the only cost but that looks like good value compared to the Rwanda plan.

Yet the money shouldn’t be our biggest concern. Morality should.  Rwanda is already home to 150,000 refugees living in huge camps.  The welfare of those that Ms Patel would ship off to East Africa is cause for concern. It has now emerged that the Rwandan authorities plan to evict survivors of the Rwandan genocide from their accommodation to make way for the arrivals from Britain.  

The starting point is all wrong. If I was caught up in a civil war I would’ve tried to get out with my wife and children. I’m sure most people reading this would too. And if that’s our starting point then our asylum and immigration system would be very different. 

Ukraine shows us how different it could be. Ukrainian refugees, at least in theory, get to be treated as human beings, deserving of help and support. The British public have responded with generosity – more than 100,000 people have registered for the Homes for Ukraine scheme.  But only 12,000 Ukrainians have reached the UK so far, a fraction of the 240,000 welcomed by Germany or the 2.5 million taken in by Poland.

You could blame bureaucracy, as Priti Patel appeared to recently.  Which is odd, since she’s in charge of that bureaucracy.  But I think the real cause is a political culture that sees refugees as a problem to be dealt with rather than as people to be helped. If you spend years demonising your fellow human beings don’t be surprised when your institutions fail to respond quickly when you decide to help a few of them.

Many of the intentions for Ukrainian refugees are good. The Homes for Ukraine scheme gives refugees the right to work, something refugees from other countries are often denied.  Every refugee or asylum speaker I’ve met wants to work, and wants to contribute.  If we were to lift the ban on employment for all asylum seekers we’d save money and give people back their dignity.

Dignity is the least anyone should expect. That’s why the North of Tyne Combined Authority has supported the Action Foundation, a local charity in Newcastle. We’re helping refugees and asylum seekers learn digital skills, get online, keep in touch with loved ones, and find work. It’s making a real difference to people’s lives, giving them a chance to flourish in their new country and put down roots here.

The country you came from shouldn’t determine whether you get to stay here or not. It’s a bit odd that if you come from Ukraine you could end up living with Grant Shapps but if you’re from Iran a tent in Rwanda is your more likely destination.

*Originally printed in The Journal and Evening Chronicle 25 April 22