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Rwanda isn’t happening. Release the detainees.

Ostensibly, these people are detained to be deported. In truth, they are held because Sunak believes that publicly showing people being taken from their homes in handcuffs and loaded into vans makes for effective campaign footage.

May 25 2024, 14.05pm

Ding, dong, the Rwanda plan is dead. Or at least, we have every reason to hope so. There are rumours that the government may still be aiming to get one flight off the ground shortly before we go to the polls, as some extra-sick campaign stunt, but Rishi Sunak started his election campaign by admitting that putting the plan into action in any real sense before the election is unlikely.

Sunak is banking on the people voting him back into office to carry the plan out after July 4th, but given the state of the polls – and, frankly, the state of the country – there will likely be a change in government. Keir Starmer has given some strong assurances that a Labour government will not deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Barring some truly exceptional change in Sunak’s fortunes, it now seems safe to say the deportations will not happen.

It’s a sad reflection on the position of hostility we’re in that just the prospect of the government NOT doing something terrible genuinely feels like a win. But for each of the hundreds of people who have been detained over the last few weeks and slammed with a deportation notice, the real possibility of getting rid of this government and their Rwanda plan is a victory that cannot be overstated.

This, of course, is barely the beginning. Ostensibly, these people are detained to be deported. In reality, they’re detained because Sunak thought taking people from their homes in handcuffs and bundling them into vans, on camera, is good campaigning material. Yet people should never be abused for the sake of an election campaign. So, the first thing to do would be to release all those detainees. Ideally, today, because of the low prospect of removal, their detention is not only pointless but unlawful.

The second thing to do is to recognise that a campaign based on simply not doing the most awful thing to refugees is absolutely not enough. We must push back against the prospect of yet another election fought as a contest of who will most effectively “deter” and dodge our responsibilities to refugees. Labour won’t send refugees to Rwanda, but they still claim they can police their way out of responsibility for refugees. Another joint police force with the French, more money for border guards, and swifter removals, once applications have been reviewed, is the supposedly more palatable form of hostility being proposed by Starmer camp.

The truth is their proposals will continue to fail just as badly as before as long as they reinforce the same failed paradigm. Before we had the small boats crisis, the Rwanda plan, the Bibby barge, or any of the current horrendous, chaotic madness – we still had a failed and brutal asylum system. We still had migrants camped out without homes in dangerous, squalid conditions in Calais, trying to make it across in lorries and trucks. We still had poor decision-making, limited access to legal aid, and inadequate support and opportunities to work for asylum seekers. Returning to that position feels like we’ve run a desperate marathon only to stay in place.

Successive governments before this Tory administration spent enormous sums and struck an extraordinary range of cooperation deals with the French, among others, to supposedly end irregular migration. Joint police operations funded by the British taxpayer have operated in France since the 1990s. Year after year, these deals become more expensive, and that’s before even counting the lucrative private contracts with surveillance tech companies to patrol the border. The most galling part of this ongoing expenditure is how many people it kills – more than one person per month has died at our border with France for the last 25 years. The rate of deaths is actually going up, directly related to increased police activities that push people to more dangerous and clandestine routes. Already, 22 lives have been lost this year.

And yet, we continue to pursue the same model even though it does not work. Roughly 10,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats in 2024 so far. The deterrence is simply not deterring. For deterrence to deter, we need to make Britain worse than the countries these people are fleeing. Do we actually want that? 

Moreover, we desperately need workers from abroad—our economy and public services depend on them. If Starmer wants to lead us in a decade of renewal, he needs to grapple with the fact that our population is not renewing—it is aging. In order to support our communities and take care of the most vulnerable, we need to start treating the people desperate to come to the UK as the resources they are. 

Protecting refugees is a moral responsibility, and there will always be those we must offer sanctuary to who are too vulnerable, or traumatised and need the space and support to recover. We should be proud to provide that. A significant proportion of people coming here are desperate to work and rebuild a life full of opportunities that were not available to them in the unstable and dangerous places they left. It’s insane to keep spending huge resources on trying ineffectually to keep them out and keep them trapped, instead of welcoming them and helping them start to rebuild and provide for themselves, when we are facing major labour shortages.

This is about taking control of a process that is already happening anyway and making it safe. By helping people access our territory and asylum system safely and quickly putting them into a position where they can take on safe, dignified work, we’re simply talking about taking these existing dynamics out of the hands of smugglers, traffickers, and exploitative and illegal employers.

Safe routes, fast and fair asylum processing, and a well-regulated labour market that supports organised workers from all backgrounds to demand fair and equal conditions to providing the labour and services that our population so urgently needs, should be the minimum we ask of any new government. Channelling the resources we have – both human and financial – into saving lives and meeting the long-term needs of our communities, instead of into deadly policing stunts and deportation flights is both common sense and common decency.

The money currently invested in a system of hostility must instead be put into our communities to fund the housing and services we need to welcome newcomers. To crush not just the Rwanda deal but the sick, twisted logic that underpins it, we need Labour to offer real change.

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