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‘Priti’s migrant plan is bold, but involving Rwanda makes me queasy’

STEPHEN GLOVER: Priti Patel’s migrants plan is bold and imaginative, but there’s one word that makes me queasy – Rwanda

The Government has been under pressure from Tory MPs and many ordinary people to reduce the number of migrants arriving on the shores of Kent.

Last year, at least 28,500 of them crossed the English Channel, three times as many as in 2020. 

So far this year, the stream of migrants seems to be speeding up, and if nothing is done there are likely to be more of them this year than last.

In fact, the true numbers are probably higher than official figures suggest since, rather than reporting themselves dutifully to the authorities, some of those who cross the Channel disappear into the great wide spaces and are never counted.

So it is a big problem — that much is certain. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has taken a lot of political flak for presiding over such an enormous increase in the numbers of migrants.

Those like me who have had a go at her in the past should, therefore, think twice before criticising her proposal to deal with the issue, which is due to be announced today amid much fanfare.

Home Secretary Priti Patel is met by delegates as she arrives in Rwanda on Wednesday

STEPHEN GLOVER: Without doubt, the intention behind the scheme is to deter economic migrants. If they fear they may end up in a hot, landlocked country 4,000 miles away, in the middle of Africa, they may think twice before paying ‘people smugglers’ to take them across the Channel in a dangerously rickety boat at vast expense. But will everyone be deterred? Or even a majority? (Pictured: Migrants brought to Dover, Kent on Wednesday)

STEPHEN GLOVER: The worry is that Rwanda is a virtual dictatorship with a leader, President Paul Kagame (pictured with wife Jeanette), who has been accused of running a one-party state, closing down independent newspapers, and threatening Rwandan exiles abroad.

That it is bold and imaginative can scarcely be denied. Details are still sketchy, but it appears that two new processing centres for migrants are envisaged. 

The Ministry of Defence will take over primary responsibility for policing the Channel from Border Force.

The Home Secretary has evidently persuaded the sometimes indecisive Boris Johnson to support her, which is quite a feat. 

She is said to have been working night and day on the details for the past eight months. Boris is expected to make a keynote speech this morning.

My qualms about her plan can be expressed in one word. Rwanda. 

It and Britain will today sign what is described as the world’s first ‘global migration and economic partnership’. Priti Patel, who yesterday travelled to its capital, Kigali, has her pen at the ready.

The worry is that Rwanda is a virtual dictatorship with a leader, President Paul Kagame, who has been accused of running a one-party state, closing down independent newspapers, and threatening Rwandan exiles abroad.

Under the new scheme, it appears only bona fide asylum seekers will be allowed to stay in Britain in the first instance. 

It is thought the rest will be sent to Rwanda, where their claims will be assessed in a process in which Rwandan officials will be involved without having the final say.

Some migrants may then be allowed to enter Britain. The remainder — and one surmises that this will be the majority —will be judged economic migrants. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel is met by delegates as she arrives in Rwanda on Wednesday 

They will either be returned to their home country, or given the choice to remain in Rwanda, where there is said to be a labour shortage.

Without doubt, the intention behind the scheme is to deter economic migrants. If they fear they may end up in a hot, landlocked country 4,000 miles away, in the middle of Africa, they may think twice before paying ‘people smugglers’ to take them across the Channel in a dangerously rickety boat at vast expense.

But will everyone be deterred? Or even a majority? After all, many migrants are prepared to take the risk of crossing the Channel, even though more than 300 people have died doing so during the past 20 years.

It’s possible that the prospect of ending up in Rwanda may, in fact, not deter many economic migrants. 

Some may believe they will be successful in passing themselves off as asylum seekers. 

Others may think they will be able to dodge detection on arrival in Kent, and disappear unnoticed.

Last week, I said that I would take off my hat to Priti Patel if she could pull off her plan to process boat migrants in Rwanda. My hand is not yet reaching for my head.

How much better it would be if she had been able to persuade a decent regime to act as this country’s partner in a similar scheme. In that case, I would happily doff my hat.

Unfortunately, she appears to have persuaded herself that Kagame is a decent bloke and Rwanda a well-ordered country. She evidently knows it well, and has arrived at this view through her own experience.

STEPHEN GLOVER: Under the new scheme, it appears only bona fide asylum seekers will be allowed to stay in Britain in the first instance. It is thought the rest will be sent to Rwanda, where their claims will be assessed in a process in which Rwandan officials will be involved without having the final say.

But many others think differently. This is what the respected organisation Human Rights Watch says about Rwanda: ‘The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front continued to target those perceived as a threat to the government during 2020. Several high-profile government critics were arrested or threatened.’

It adds: ‘Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities continued.’ 

In another report, it says: ‘The arbitrary detention of people such as street vendors, sex workers, beggars, homeless people, and suspected petty criminals occurs widely.’ 

Human Rights Watch added that in the past many street children were also detained.

Not the sort of place where most of us would choose to end up, or with whose government we should be seeking a close partnership. 

Human rights lawyers are going to have a field day arguing migrants shouldn’t be transported to such a country against their will.

Denmark is said to be contemplating a similar scheme in Rwanda. But it turns out that not a single refugee has yet been despatched there by its government. 

A senior official in the foreign ministry in Copenhagen tells me that ‘no firm agreement has yet been made with the Rwandan government’.

Rwanda’s reputation may be a sticking point for the Danes. Transporting migrants against their will to a third country is bound to be problematic at the best of times. 

When that country has a regime like Rwanda’s, it becomes controversial.

What is so odd is that for nearly 20 years some Tories have had a love affair with President Kagame, and continue to do so despite a mountain of damning evidence against him.

It was in 2007, when the Tories were anxious to show they had a heart, that David Cameron and the Shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, founded Project Umubano in Rwanda. 

Well-meaning activists visited the country every year, renovating a school and establishing a medical library.

The same year, a grateful President Kagame was the star turn at the Tory Party conference. 

STEPHEN GLOVER: Forcing illegal migrants to go to a third country — and under the new dispensation they will officially be termed ‘illegal’ for the first time — would be a good idea if that third country were a democratic state where the rule of law prevailed and human rights were respected (Pictured: Migrants off Kent in November last year)

Much aid has been lavished on Rwanda by the Tories, despite its widely publicised human rights abuses.

Over the years, the Tories have occasionally blown cold on him. 

But aid continued to flow even after Rwanda was reported in 2018 to be spending £30 million on a three-year deal sponsoring Arsenal football club while still receiving £64 million a year in aid from the UK.

Forcing illegal migrants to go to a third country — and under the new dispensation they will officially be termed ‘illegal’ for the first time — would be a good idea if that third country were a democratic state where the rule of law prevailed and human rights were respected. Alas, no such country is a contender.

Incidentally, when Labour MPs inevitably create a rumpus over the Home Secretary’s proposals, someone should remind them that in 2004 Tony Blair tried to persuade Tanzania to process asylum claims, but failed.

Priti Patel should be congratulated for coming up with bold and imaginative ideas to solve a serious problem. 

I should probably take my hat off to her just for that. My fear, though, is that her plan is doomed because of Rwanda.

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