A cautionary tale: Why the UK’s Rwanda bill is doomed for political failure

Finally passed into law, the UK’s bill to process migrants in Rwanda has been a political disaster. European governments should remember that not only does such a policy not work to deter migration, it will politically damage any party that adopts it

Rishi Sunak London visit. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street, London. Mr Sunak will urge peers to back his Rwanda plan ahead of crunch votes on the legislation aimed at making the plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda legally watertight. Picture date: Monday April 22, 2024. See PA story POLITICS Sunak. Photo credit should read: Toby Melville/PA Wire URN:75958495
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in Downing Street, London, urging peers to back his Rwanda plan ahead of crunch votes, Monday, April 22, 2024
Image by picture alliance / empics | Toby Melville

When the British government first advanced its bill to send migrants off-shore to Rwanda back in April 2022, then home secretary Priti Patel promised it would “change the way we collectively tackle illegal migration.” Two years later and with the bill finally passed into law, the policy is a floundering disaster: it is unlikely to deter illicit migration, damages the UK’s global standing by violating international law, and endangers refugee’s lives all at huge financial cost. Nevertheless, Patel was disturbingly prescient. Germany’s own conservative party the Chirstian Democratic Union are now advancing their own Rwanda scheme, Italy is flirting over a similar enterprise with Albania, and the European Commission is trumpeting comparable schemes across north Africa in the build up to European Parliament election.

The idea has undeniably caught on, yet the Rwanda bill has not stopped regular or irregular migration. The most recent year-on-year statistics, show the United Kingdom’s net migration at a record high. On top of this, irregular migration rose by 17 per cent a year after the Rwanda bill was first unveiled as the ultimate deterrent for small boat crossings.

The Rwanda bill is, after all, just an extreme version of the failing externalisation policies which already dominate European migration policy. Externalisation policies aim to push border management onto a third country, thereby stopping and processing migrants before they cross into Europe. Over the past decade, Europeans have desperately and enthusiastically engaged in such deals with almost every southern neighbourhood country. It has cost Europeans tens of billions of euros, severely undermined their positioning as advocates of human rights, warped relationships with Europe’s southern neighbourhood, and damaged other foreign policy goals. Ultimately, it has not even stopped migrants arriving, but only caused more hardship and deaths enroute. In Italy, for example, which has a policy of externalisation, the number of migrants who arrive irregularly has nearly returned to 2016 levels.

Annual arrivals in Italy, 2013-2023.

Not only has externalisation proven to be an unsuccessful way to regain control over migration, maximise migration’s benefits, or mitigate its negatives, but a Rwanda scheme has already failed in Israel.

Nevertheless, the British government has pursued the bill despite its own Supreme Court unanimously declaring it unlawful given the scheme’s propensity for refoulement – a legal principle that any asylum seeker should not be returned to somewhere they’re at risk of harm. Instead, the British government put itself above the law; issuing a new bill to forcefully designate Rwanda a safe country while providing ministers powers to disregard inconvenient sections of international human rights treaties. Given the UK’s founding role in the European Convention on Human Rights and history advocating for international norms, multilateralism, and rule of law; it’s a bill that has done more to tarnish the UK’s reputation than help the government “take back control” over migration.

Given the Rwanda bill seems doomed to fail, it is worth asking why the idea is so popular among other European governments. European politicians across the spectrum seem to believe they must “look tough” on migration to win votes and stave off the far-right. This means adopting the right-wing framing of migration as a security threat and only challenging the finer points of how right-wing migration policies are implemented.

But recent ECFR polling reveals European politicians are trapping themselves in a migration hysteria of their own creation. Of the major crises Europeans feel most strongly about, migration polls beneath all others of the past decade. Those who are moved by immigration are mostly concerned about controlling arrivals, with data also intimating that populations become less concerned over immigration once they become more familiar with those migrating. The crisis Europeans feel most strongly about, by a significant margin, is in fact the economy, a crisis that migration can help alleviate.

European politicians are trapping themselves in a migration hysteria of their own creation

The electoral significance of migration is therefore not as voters’ main priority, but the right-wing’s success in making migration a symbol of the European Union’s failures. Moreover, there is such tribalism among the right over migration that right-wing constituencies remain suspicious of any mainstream candidate who tries adopting their rhetoric. This suggests that echoing the right on migration does not even win you right-wing votes.

Given these facts, it’s no real surprise that despite making the Rwanda bill a headline policy, the UK's Conservative party is polling at an all-time low, along with perceptions of how they are handling migration, all while pushing voters over to the far-right Reform party. After all, the bill is profligately expensive, costing £290mn before a single person has even been deported. In the context of widespread government cuts and a cost-of-living crisis, such a policy seems tone-deaf. And stoking anti-migration anxieties while resorting to increasingly desperate measures to pass the bill amid record-high immigration does not exactly demonstrate control.

For other European parties mimicking the migration policies of Britain’s Conservatives, these political dynamics will almost certainly remain. Such policies will still lose votes, even in the unlikely scenario the UK government is able to make a Rwanda scheme stop illicit migration.

Mainstream European politicians’ approach to migration on the campaign trail and in the halls of power is clearly backfiring. After decades of intensifying externalisation, third states are controlling migration flows while the far-right is controlling migration discourse.

This election year must be the year mainstream European politicians break from the far-right migration dogma that led to the Rwanda bill. Recent history shows that another election cycle of mainstream parties hyper-fixating on migration over other voter priorities while competing over ever more extreme policies, will only aggravate fears of migrants, economic profligacy, and an image of failure – dynamics that will make a bad situation worse and deliver further returns to the far-right.

In their campaigns, rather than trying to co-opt a discourse describing migration as a threat, mainstream candidates should challenge it, highlight its decade-long failings, and relate the topic to specific voter concerns. They should make solving migration about improving processing and integration and boosting the economy, rather than brutalising migrants and refugees.

After all, it’s the cost and optics of thousands of destitute asylum seekers awaiting processing, unable to work or join communities, that shape the image of failure. In many ways, such policies are doing the far-right’s job for them. In the UK’s case, where 94 per cent of asylum-seekers are also employment-seekers, an alternative policy of fast-tracking to employment could have netted the UK £211mn annually and bolstered an economy in recession. This kind of a discourse and policy shift then sets up the platform to build the medium- to long-term collective approach needed to sustainably control migration.

If mainstream European politicians learn from the mistakes of the Rwanda bill, then perhaps Patel will be proved right in the way she least expected: the Rwanda bill will change how we collectively tackle migration, but by becoming the symbol of just how badly Europe’s externalisation policies are failing on every metric possible. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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