The Rwanda deal is not the solution

Trying the effectiveness argument

The UK government has introduced a new migration policy. It threatens irregular immigrants who ask for asylum in the UK to be sent to Rwanda.

The UK migration policy involving the deportation of irregular immigrants to Rwanda is highly ineffective. Despite its aim of preventing irregular immigrants from crossing the UK border and preventing injuries, it will be incapable of doing so. Its outcome will instead be a redirection of irregular migrants towards risker paths and journeys, and a consequent rise in fatality rates. Finally, the policy will fail to boost public confidence in the government.

On the 14th of April 2022, the UK government and the Republic of Rwanda signed a “Migration and Economic Development Partnership” (MEDP). It states that the partnership with Rwanda is “…designed to disincentives dangerous and unnecessary journeys such as small boat crossings, save lives and prevent injuries, and increase public confidence in the Government’s handling of both border security and fixing the UK’s immigration system” (1).

The MEDP with Rwanda is part of the New Plan for Immigration (NPI), and it is centered around a “Memorandum of Understanding between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the Republic of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement” (MoU).

This MoU creates a mechanism for the deportation to Rwanda of asylum seekers whose claims are deemed inadmissible by the United Kingdom. Rwandan authorities will then be responsible for processing their claims and settling, or removing, individuals on its territory in accordance with domestic law and international human rights. This agreement will last for five years, starting from when irregular migrants will be relocated to Rwanda for the first time.

To be clear. The UK government reputes illegal and inadmissible asylum requests of immigrants who cross the border through irregular means such as hiding in containers, hiding under or in trucks, or crossing the English Channel in a small boat, as well as those of them who were previously present in or had another connection to, a safe third country where they could have claimed for asylum.

Put simply, the UK aims to prevent irregular immigrants from crossing its borders through the threat of sending them to the Republic of Rwanda, regardless of their nationality and country of origin.

The government’s agreement with Rwanda was met with criticism by international organisations, think tanks, and research centers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) have accused the United Kingdom of shifting its asylum responsibilities to a third country and evading its international obligations.

The first flight deporting migrants to Rwanda was scheduled for the 14th of June 2022, but moments before departing, it was grounded by a series of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The issue has then been under the judgment of the UK High Court of Justice. On the 19th of December 2022, Lord Justice Lewis and Mr. Justice Swift deemed the government’s policy to send inadmissible asylum seekers to Rwanda lawful.

Since the ruling of the UK High Court of Justice, Rishi Sunak has not lost a chance to highlight the government’s commitment to implement the new migration policy. Although legal and moral arguments have failed to change the government’s plan, Conservatives should still be interested in the efficacy of their policy.

I want to contribute to the debate around the UK migration partnership with Rwanda by considering its effectiveness. The policy is not effective and will fail to reach the three goals it wants to pursue. Namely:

  1. Disincentives dangerous and unnecessary journeys such as small boat crossings.
  2. Save lives and prevent injuries.
  3. Increase public confidence in the government’s handling of border security and fixing the UK’s immigration system.

The migration policy undertaken by the UK government is known as a “Prevention through Deterrence” (PTD) strategy. In this case, what the government wants to prevent is illegal immigration. The deterrent is that illegal immigrants will be sent to Rwanda and banned for life from the UK. These strategies have already been used by the US and the EU, among others, in the past. Rather than stopping illegal immigrants, they have dispersed migration towards riskier routes and consequently raised fatality rates.

In 1993, Silvestre Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran and US border patrol agent, was promoted to chief of “Operation Blockade”. The operation aimed to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the Mexico-Texas border. In order to do so, Reyes disposed 400 border patrol agents around El Paso, an American city on the border between Texas and Mexico, which was a regular “port of entry” for irregular immigrants. The logic behind the strategy was that the disposal of such a “show of force” would have deterred illegal immigrants from crossing the border.

The motivations pushing irregular migrants through their journey were stronger than the show of force exhibited by Reyes and his men. Migrants did not lose hope. They rather changed their routes and attempted the crossing through different, riskier paths, such as through the Sonora desert, on the Arizona-Mexico border.

As demonstrated by Douglas Massey in his paper “Immigration Policy Mismatches and Counterproductive Outcomes: Unauthorized Migration to the US in two eras”, after 1993, the number of undocumented migrants entering the US through El Paso fell from 74% to around 30% of the undocumented migrants crossing the Mexico-US border, while the percentage of those crossing through the Arizona border (and therefore through the Sonora desert) rose from around 10% to 48% of the undocumented migrants crossing the Mexico-US border. As a result, the fatality rate among migrants trying to cross the US-Mexico border illegally skyrocketed (2).

What happened in the US 30 years ago will occur again in the UK. The UK government’s strategy based on Prevention Through Deterrence will fail to stop illegal immigration. Irregular migrants will continue to get into the UK illegally. International migration is governed by “push” and “pull factors”. PTD strategies are ineffective because they can only influence migration’s “pull” factors. All the “push factors”, the elements pushing irregular migrants to undertake their journey, are left untouched. Throughout history, the latter have demonstrated to be stronger than any prevention or threat. Therefore, the agreement with Rwanda will fail to achieve its first goal. It will not “disincentives dangerous and unnecessary journeys such as small boat crossings“.

The Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda will also fail to pursue its second goal. It will not “save lives and prevent injuries”. On the opposite, it will lead irregular migrants to cross through riskier paths, with the consequence of rising fatality and injury rates. Under the threat of being sent to Rwanda, irregular migrants will attempt to get into the UK through areas with low border patrolling, where the chance of apprehension are smaller. They will therefore stop crossing through the usual port of entries and redirect to less safe and less patrolled ones. For instance, rather than attempting to reach the UK through the English Channel, irregular migrants will head towards the open sea, where the climate and environmental conditions are more hostile and unforeseeable and where those being able to rescue them in case of a shipwreck are not present. Again, the effect of this strategy will resemble the outcomes obtained by “Operation Blockade”, and the fatality rates among irregular immigrants will rise rather than decrease.

Finally, this migration policy will fail to boost public confidence in the government. Although the latest debate around this policy has brought the Conservative party to a poll boost, this effect will not last long. It will be almost impossible for the UK government to fully enact their measure and effectively deport irregular migrants to Rwanda. Although the UK High Court deemed the deportation to Rwanda of irregular immigrants requesting asylum in the UK lawful, it did not allow the first migrants to be deported to Rwanda because it judged that their claims had not been appropriately considered. When the public acknowledges that the UK government paid 120 million pounds to Rwanda for a useless policy, it will lose all confidence in the government’s ability to manage immigration effectively.

Rather than legal or moral arguments, I wanted to discuss the effectiveness of the policy undertaken by the UK government. The partnership with Rwanda will not stop irregular immigrants from entering the UK. Differently, it will lead migrants to riskier paths, and consequently, it will raise fatality rates among them attempting to get into the UK illegally. Therefore, the MEDP with Rwanda will fail to achieve its first two goals. Namely, it will not “disincentivise dangerous and unnecessary journeys such as small boat crossings, save lives and prevent injuries”. Finally, this policy is also unable to reach its third and final goal, “increase public confidence in the Government’s handling of both border security and fixing the UK’s immigration system”. In facts, when the public will reckon that the government has given 120 million pounds to Rwanda for an ineffective policy which will never be implemented, it will lose its confidence in the government’s ability to manage immigration.

About the author

Giovanni Bergami

Giovanni was formerly the Centre Head of Policy. He is a recent graduate, holding an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a BA in Philosophy, International and Economic Studies from the Cà Foscari University of Venice. He has a particular interest in looking at poverty and the disconnect between governments and those in need of support.