Speaking soon after Wednesday’s supreme court judgment, one of the people seeking asylum who has been involved in the case against the government bravely spoke anonymously to the BBC. The man, in his 20s, who arrived in the UK 18 months ago from a war-ravaged country in the Middle East, said he felt “relieved” by the decision. “The situation has changed and I hope the next stage is going to be more positive, things are going to get better,” he said.
This sense of relief is likely to have been undermined by the prime minister’s brazen response the same afternoon that the government will still push ahead with the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda by creating a new treaty. He will probably have been even more devastated by the immigration minister Robert Jenrick’s even more adamant words that it is “absolutely critical that flights go off to Rwanda in the spring”.
For those we work with at the Refugee Council who are in the asylum system, the main feelings are anxiety and fear. Since the Rwanda plan was announced by Boris Johnson back in April 2022, we have seen much distress and trauma caused to people who face being sent to the east African country to have their asylum claims processed.
Letters have been received, menacingly called notices of intent, warning people that they are being considered for forcible removal. A recent freedom of information request found that between January 2021 and March this year more than 24,000 people had received the letters.
Every time a person receives one, it causes considerable stress. We are aware of some cases in which the impact on people’s mental health has been so acute that it has led to self-harm and suicide attempts. This is the harsh reality of the lived experience for men, women and children from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Eritrea – where oppressive regimes chase down their opponents – and from countries such as Sudan and Syria, where wars are playing out.
In the legal and political arguments over Rwanda, it is easy to forget that these are the people affected. They are the faces behind the statistics and the case files. They are our fellow human beings, who through no fault of their own have had to leave their homelands and give up their livelihoods. The chaos and uncertainty they have had to face since the government came up with its Rwanda scheme is now only going to deepen.
In conversations with Home Office officials, they quietly acknowledge that without the Rwanda deal the flagship Illegal Migration Act becomes a lame-duck piece of legislation. The act, in the words of the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, “extinguishes access to asylum in the UK”. Those who arrive irregularly will not be able to apply for asylum and face removal to a so-called safe third country. When the legislation was first published as a bill in March, the government assumed that Rwanda would be that safe third country. It didn’t expect the court of appeal and then the supreme court to conclude that the deal is unlawful because Rwanda is unsafe for people seeking asylum.
I understand there was shock among officials in the Home Office who had been tasked with implementing the act when the judgment came through. That’s because there is no plan B. Their objective now is simply to plough on and implement the Illegal Migration Act. It is unimaginable for it not to happen.
The act will apply to anyone who has entered the country to apply for asylum since 20 July, when it received royal assent. Officials privately saytell us thatBased on the number of asylum applications so far this year, this could be as many as 30,000 people. All of their lives remain in limbo. And yet another backlog is created on top of the one the government is already trying to tackle, in its frantic efforts to get through more than 120,000 cases in the asylum system that have piled up owing to its gross mismanagement and an obsession with putting in place a hostile environment.
And it gets worse. Evidence is beginning to emerge from organisations across the country that support people who are seeking asylum showing that, as the political noise about flights to Rwanda ramps up, fear is driving people to disappear and go underground. We know from our experience that this is likely to lead to different forms of exploitation, trafficking and abuse.
For a government and a prime minister who seem to have decided to stake their legacies on this Rwanda plan, this is simply collateral damage. All that matters is getting planes in the air, because in their minds that is the ultimate deterrent to desperate people who have to escape their own countries – the only way to “stop the boats”.
This is, of course, ill conceived. As the Oxford University Migration Observatory says: “There’s no single policy that can reduce Channel crossings on its own, and the Rwanda deal was no exception to this.”
But this isn’t just about what works or doesn’t work to stop the boats. It is about who we are as a country and who we want to be. It is about standing up for the right to asylum, giving people a fair hearing and treating them with the dignity and humanity they deserve.
Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council. The Guardian