Cats in a Bag

21 April 2022

Cats in a Bag

The Rwanda proposal.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

I think we should have a new parlour game. It could be called “cats in a bag” and contestants could make opposing teams of public figures they really distrusted and then find the issue over which they would quarrel most. My own list would include Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg on the one side and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the editor of The Guardian on the other. For a topic I would choose the proposal that the UK should pass on illegal immigrants to Rwanda.

Of course nothing very useful would come out of the bag, just squawking and indignation about the position of each other and platitudes about rights and duties. Actually, I have some sympathy with that. When first I read of the proposed partnership with Rwanda I was appalled. It sounds a very doubtful sort of place (it is in Africa, by the way) and I have never had any confidence in Priti Patel as a politician. Still, there may be a bit of racism and misogyny behind that and the Shaw Sheet claims to operate on a higher plane.  Our task is not to reinforce preconceptions but to analyse the proposals and in this case the analysis has to be carried out in two parts, the morality of the principle behind them and whether they can be decently implemented. Questions, therefore, of whether the Home Office will properly administer a system to distinguish legal from illegal immigrants, and whether Rwanda is honest in its statement that it wants the immigrants to reinforce its society and that it will fairly deal with them, etcetera, fall into the second part. So let us begin by asking what should be done with immigrants who do not satisfy the criteria for admission to the UK but nonetheless wash up on our shores.

Yes, yes, I realise that you are choking with indignation by now and spluttering about the difficulties of distinguishing between political refugees and economic migrants. There, you see, I have paused to make your point for you but it is a point in the wrong place. There have to be some rules about who can come into UK and who cannot, Germany recently tried the other system and it didn’t work very well, and the question we are considering is what to do with those for whom the answer is “no”.

There are three possibilities. The first is to let them settle anyway and that is not practical politics. The UK as a country has much to be proud about in its race relations but there are limits to how quickly new arrivals can be accommodated. Unfettered immigration would change our society in ways which none of us wish to see.

The second is to send them back to where they came from. Where they are genuine political refugees that is unconscionable. Where they are not, the system has failure built into it because they are going back to a society which they have already rejected. Indeed it may not be practicable to send them back at all if the country from which they came is not prepared to accept them. Not a great answer then.

The third possibility, call it the “Botany Bay” option if you like, is to send them to a country which is willing to accept them and to give them a role in its development. It isn’t what they want of course but from their point of view it is probably better than being sent back. If it can be made to work properly and decently, then it is probably the least bad solution.

So far so good but those words “if it can be made to work properly and decently” are the key. Under Ms Patel’s proposals there are two governments involved. First there is the government of Rwanda and here the central question is whether the immigrants they take will be allowed to integrate or whether the authorities there will simply grab the money and allow the immigrants to starve. We have had warm words from Mr Biruta, of course, but to what extent will he – or will he be able to – deliver on them? That must be the first due diligence point on these arrangements and one on which one would hope that the House of Commons will focus.

The second government is ours. We have heard a lot from Ms Patel about strengthening the border force in the Channel but the real question here goes to efficiency. For this system to work reasonably and humanely we need a quick and efficient way of determining people’s immigration status whether the individual concerned is in the UK, Rwanda or elsewhere. We also need to establish proper oversight of those facilities in which people are held pending their release into the Rwandan community. Here the devil will be in the detail and it will presumably be down to government department to ensure that it gets done. It is depressing that this will probably be the Home Office whose staff already seem to have so taken against the proposals that they can hardly be trusted with the task of implementing them. Perhaps oversight of this arrangement should be passed elsewhere within Whitehall.

It is hard to know whether any of this will really happen. The Archbishop is against it of course but that is also the starting position of many more serious political commentators. Still, this should not be a matter of starting positions but rather a careful consideration of practical consequences and a balancing of the proposals against other alternatives. We need our politicians to think about this, therefore, and not just to take grandstanding positions.

Cover image: Richard Townshend / wikimedia / creative commons

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