“Is it a blessing to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?”
“Is it a blessing to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?” I was asked on telly last week.
Last year Suella Braverman had a dream of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. She’d now said it would be “a blessing” to be deported. The same Suella Braverman who had to resign as a security risk after breaching the ministerial code. Before being reappointed by Rishi Sunak six days later.
“What would be a blessing,” I said, “is to treat asylum seekers with respect and dignity, and process their claims quickly.”
Asylum seekers wait 440 days for an initial decision. People fleeing persecution, waiting for over a year to hear their fate, prohibited from working, living in hotel rooms with deteriorating mental health – it’s neither compassionate nor economically sensible.
Sir Philip Rutnam, former Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, said productivity plummeted when asylum staff had their role downgraded in 2014. Paying civil servants less for the same job triggered an exodus. Ten years ago, each officer processed 13.7 cases per month. Now it’s just four.
“I like your detail” said Jo Coburn, the presenter of BBC Politics Live, acknowledging the point.
If the debate was about logic, it would be over. If the debate was about morality and decency it would be over. But it’s not.
Sitting next to me was Conor Burns MP. The man who claimed Boris Johnson had been ambushed by a cake. Who in 2020 was forced to resign as a minister after the standards committee found him guilty of abusing of Parliamentary privilege. Who, after being reappointed as a minister, was again suspended after allegations of inappropriate touching in a hotel bar. He was subsequently cleared by an internal Conservative Party investigation.
Later in the programme Mr Burns made a surreal speech in which he compared himself to Jesus, saying his suspension left him exiled “a few more days than Christ spent in the desert”.
On asylum seekers he said the public want this sorted out. That evil gangs exploit asylum seekers. And some of his constituents didn’t like people coming in small boats. And asylum seekers were staying in hotels. “This is about deterrence” and “those who genuinely want to claim asylum need fear nothing” from being deported to Rwanda.
Note the dog-whistle language. “Those who genuinely…” implying most asylum seekers are conning us. Presumably by risking their lives in rubber dinghies.
“What we’re getting into here,” I said, “is trying to blame asylum seekers.”
He played the “first safe country” card.
Most refugees do stop in the first safe country. 14 million displaced Syrians have left their jobs and businesses and property behind. 6.8 million internally displaced in Syria. 5.5 million in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. 850,000 in Germany. And according to the UN, around 20,000 are in the UK.
Why deter asylum seekers? Would we deter victims of muggings from going to a hospital?
If I was facing bombs and famine, I’d try to get out with my wife and kids. And I would not want to raise my children in a refugee camp. Like the Syrian consultant anaesthetist I spoke to. Like all asylum seekers, he should be allowed to work.
A ‘safe passage visa’ – suggested by Olivia Blake MP – would let people already in Europe come to the UK to make an asylum claim without risking their lives in the Channel. We could end the boats overnight. And the trafficking gangs. By letting asylum seekers get here legally, on trains, planes and ferries.
But I don’t believe Government wants to stop the boats. It gives them a big, juicy, culture-war story to distract from falling wages and crumbling public services. And foreigners to blame.
Suella Braverman let the mask slip, “we have a problem with people exploiting our generosity”. Straight out of a Dickens novel, she believes refugees are beneath her. Unworthy and inferior citizens of the world who should be grateful for scraps. Dog-whistle racism.
I recall someone else had a dream. That his four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.