The Human Cargo of Voluntary Departure

“Anyone entering the UK illegally… may now be relocated to Rwanda” – Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

It’s like a bad dream you can’t ever wake up from. Britain is now the world’s leading people trafficker.

Are these the sunlit uplands you were waiting for?

The ‘Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and Rwanda’ is a descent into fascism facilitated by Brexit. It was framed as such by the Prime Minister who announced the programme on the BBC live from Kent saying: “The British people voted several times to control our borders, not to close them but to control them, this is what Brexit has allowed us to do.”

The deal – shaken on by Priti Patel in Kigale – is a face-saver for Johnson and Paul Kagame, but is Patel’s work. More of this in a moment.

It is undoubtedly a shameful moment – a shift in the Overton Window of acceptable politics.  This is fascism and it should be seen for what it is. This is extraordinary rendition on a mass scale. This is a departure from international law and obligations Britain has signed up to and pretends it is party to. It should be a moment of profound national shame as the pretence of the Britain of yesteryear is revealed to be a folk tale re-told only by people who aren’t really paying attention. 

Beyond Sanctuary

It is all a desperate attempt to re-ignite the post-Brexit culture wars and play-up and enflame the fire of racist populism. Given that we are actually living though a period characterised by people reaching out to those feeling war and violence, it is a bitterly odd announcement. As Enver Solomon , chief executive of the Refugee Council has written:

“The British public have shown remarkable compassion and understanding in wanting to offer a warm welcome to all Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in the UK. But instead of harnessing this compassion for refugees and making Britain a nation of sanctuary – as the Scottish government has pledged to do – Boris Johnson’s administration in England has chosen to effectively offshore people seeking asylum to Rwanda; to treat them as no more than human cargo to be shipped thousands of miles away so they are out of sight and out of mind.”

Make no mistake, Rwanda has one of the most sinister human rights records on the continent of Africa.

The murder of Patrick Karegeya (Rwanda’s former intelligence chief) who was found dead in 2014 in a hotel in South Africa is just the most high-profile case of a litany of violence. Karegeya was murdered in Johannesburg by Rwandan agents after he, having fallen out of favour, had fled Rwanda, setting up an opposition organisation in exile.

It was a murder that Kagame’s ministers publicly celebrated.  Kagame’s message to Rwanda’s domestic audience was clear. At at a prayer breakfast in Kigali: “Whoever betrays the country will pay the price, I assure you,” he told a small crowd of dignitaries.

Do Not Disturb

In fact the summary of the 2021 US State Dept of ‘Democracy, Human Rights & Labour’ report on Human Rights Practices in Rwanda: has the country as “one of the most autocratic, authoritarian & repressive regimes on earth”, ranked 150th out of 179 countries in the world on its index of liberal democracy.

Michela Wrong author of ‘Do Not Disturb. The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad’ has explained:

“For Kagame, this deal with the UK marks part of a relentless and strikingly effective campaign to persuade the west to embrace him as a proactive African leader offering radical solutions to thorny domestic and foreign policy problems. When Total’s giant liquefied gas project in Mozambique was closed by jihadist rebels last year, for example, Kagame was quick to send 1,000 troops, which swiftly secured the area and won him admiration from France’s Emmanuel Macron. This new offshore processing deal possesses a similar imaginary silver bullet quality.”


This is far closer to the mas deportation of the 70s National Front than an immigration policy. But even under its own terms, it makes no sense whatsoever. We know this because the scheme has already failed.  Of about 4,000 people estimated to have been deported by Israel to Rwanda and Uganda under a “voluntary departure” scheme between 2014 and 2017, almost all are thought to have left the country almost immediately, with many attempting to return to Europe via people-smuggling routes.

Check the language, people are to be sent 5000 miles away to be “processed”, and the scheme was previously called “voluntary departure”,

This sinister distortion of language is part of the fascism it facilitates. As Pinar Aksu and Alison Phipps explain: “Another word used like an evil mantra is “illegal migration”, a deliberately inaccurate, erroneous, term used to describe the use of irregular routes for those for whom regular immigration processes are closed. In reality, it will be the opposite, banning people from working, creating detention accommodation across the country, criminalising people seeking asylum and refuge, taking away citizenship and now creating offshore asylum processing centre – as we call it “offshore detention”. This exact discussion and the use of words such as “illegal” migration should not be normalised. This language will create space for further division, and state-sanctioned racism within communities.”

Will this be popular?

God knows. It’s difficult to track the extent to which English political culture has been twisted and morphed into some hellscape of normalised racism. Because we’ve been building up to this for years, from decades of a daily-diet of tabloid racism to the normalisation of fascism onto primetime flag-ship television, from the Windrush Scandal that blew away to the Hostile Environment, to Theresa May’s Hate Van, to the elevation of Farage and Faragism and Lawrence Fox and a thousand variants of reactionary bigoted and casual toxicity, and on and on and on. Racism has seeped through British culture for years, the acceptable face of post-imperial decline, a ‘colonial wound’ seeping-through.

Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will next week return to the Commons after being defeated for a second time by the Lords, those coming across the Channel would be criminalised and could face imprisonment for up to four years.

It’s deeply disturbing to watch this unfold and not really know if there is ANY threshold beyond which people will revolt. It’s really unsettling to watch all of this and realise that this might actually be quite popular. Think about that.

Liberal Disgust and Disquiet

Watching the discussions roll-out across my timelines on Friday there was a secondary impression. The incredulity of the liberal commentariat as they watch open-mouthed as the logical consequences of the last decade of a shift to the right takes place. The Times columnist David Aaronovitch bleated: “It’s true that it’s quite likely to be illegal, that it will certainly be incredibly expensive and that it probably won’t work. But worse than all this is that the Rwanda plan is shaming. Britain is better than this” – while Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis chipped-in saying: “This is the point. It just feels deeply deeply “ unBritish”. We used to be great at compassion.”

Did we aye?

This nostalgia for the compassionate Britain of yesteryear is urgent myth-making. It’s liberal self-delusion on a grand scale. And, what’s next? Who knows but the notion of this being used as a political platform for Prit Patel’s career shouldn’t be ruled out.

Once treatment of asylum seekers in the Channel and vicious attacks on the poor became normalised, anything was possible. Writing in Prospect Magazine last year  the ex-Labour MP Chris Mullin had a foreboding premonition:

“The Tory Party is now firmly in the hands of English nationalists. I do not see this changing in the near future. Flag-waving is all very well, but eventually they will need more to offer. In due course, I would not rule out a referendum on the reintroduction of the death penalty. Britain would have to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, but the next step in the plan may be precisely that. The year before Boris Johnson brought him into Downing Street, Dominic Cummings wrote on his blog that once Brexit was done “we’ll be coming for the ECHR referendum and we’ll win that by more than 52-48.”

“The path would then be clear to bring back the gallows, but it wouldn’t get through parliament directly—what is easier to imagine is the matter being thrown over to the public. Proponents would need to choose their moment carefully—the immediate aftermath of a terrorist incident or a particularly shocking murder…”

If that doesn’t terrify you nothing will.

It’s time for an Easter Rising.




Comments (25)

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  1. Richard Haviland says:

    Excellent piece – thanks for bringing these threads together. I think like most places both Britain and England are a mix of the compassionate and the deeply intolerant, the liberal and the deeply illiberal. So in recognizing the extent of past national myth-making (which many of us are now doing at an accelerated pace) you can also recognize that there is stuff, and there are historical figures, to be admired, and times (not enough of them) when more compassionate governments were in charge. But there’s no doubt that we are a time of reckoning where the myths need to be busted for good. And Rwanda should be a defining moment.

  2. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I dont go along with those who say ‘fascist’ at every right wing policy but this is deeply so. I’m not keen on turning the discussion into an attack on Rwanda, that’s a different matter. What we are responsible for is the UK government’s actions which Patel hopes will be replicated elsewhere. This is from a very sordid place for equally sordid reasons. The consequence of irresponsible people clinging to power. They must go, and we must strive to win the argument for independence.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    “Will this be popular?”

    Look up any articles on the subject on MSN and read the attached torrent of depressing comments. Regardless of how it all ends it will buy the scum time to complete their Britannia Unchained project.

  4. Maclean says:

    The au not been Tories are and have been for a while now “ The New Nazi Party” masquerading as Tories. They’re egotistical psychopath narcissistic misogynistic racist facist mindless behaviour fooling people into believing in lies and fake news . If become a Tin Pot Dictator state , where the population live in FEAR , Intimidation and abuse . This is not a foreign country we’re talking about it “ Britain’s, Brexit Britain” what an absolute disgrace. The lunatics are running the asylum and there’s nothing the people can do to change it. The abuse forced on to the people and country by the Westminster government reading from the Jimmy Savile handbook on “ who to groom the public and not get caught “ is sicking and frightening all in one. How could the English get it so wrong are we seeing the true English character being played out by the tories.
    It may not be cattle trucks but it’s dam close and wrong, after 170,000 dead ,Boris looks far from finished with his Grim Reaper costume. Boris the Putin Puppet is rolling on Russian cash and washing them in the blood of thousands of Ukrainian children and he’s SMIRKING as he tells you another lie.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Well, it is a step closer to the dystopian world of Watch Dogs: Legion, which also features private military contractors, the secret services, police, tech corporations and a favoured organized crime family working hand in glove. Although in that scenario executive power has disappeared from the public sphere and been entirely privatised, the link between public and formal political participation severed.

    If one theme of this article (which needs a bit of copy-editing) is to push for ever better understanding of British imperial history, then yes. Racism is conducted from the top, from the royalist institutions like the Anglican church hierarchs fighting to keep honouring major investors in racialised chattel slavery.

    Since the obvious solution to the problem of people fleeing their homes is a global programme of ‘levelling up’, and is essentially recommended under UN sustainability goals, why is this not part of a global consensus amongst rich countries? Maybe because the ideology of their rich captors demands a never-ending stream of ‘losers’ to feed their lawful evil alignment, and foreigners to stoke domestic resentment towards. To oppose this, arguments must be won for compensatory action, and colonial reparations (including but not limited to #RoyalReparations) and climate justice programmes should be implemented. However, due to neocolonialism, it is not a simple matter as some of the ex-colonial regimes are continuations (and sometimes clients) of the imperial powers. The only solution I can see would be to set off a cascading change in the very nature of government around the world, which could happen if smaller nations (like an independent Scotland) adopt a radical alternative like constitutionally-encoded biocracy.

    1. Thanks SleepingDog, some copy-editing has happened

  6. Gavinochiltree says:

    Iain MacWhirter tried (in the Herald) to “link” Sturgeon with Le Pen (election smearing time).

    Of course the real equivalent is Boris Johnson, a casual racist, liar and all-round populist huckster.
    They are also leaders of political parties whose historic bigotry included antisemitism and strict opposition to migration from non-white members of their respective Empires.

    “Gawd bless the Queen……….’n’ her fascist regime”.

    1. Alec Lomax says:

      Iain McWhirter was once a decent journalist once upon a time..Pity about him.

  7. Axel P Kulit says:

    Back in 2016 there were postcards distributed saying “Go home Polish Vermin”, hel[fully translated into Polish on the back.

    We have gone from Reviling Poles (Tall, Blond Hair, Blue eyes) to accepting. indeed welcoming Ukrainians (Tall, Blond Hair, Blue eyes) .

    The media can mould the supposedly free people of England like modelling clay.

    I tend to despair

  8. Ottomanboi says:

    Vile «partnership», when will Africa get the message? Once a colonist, always a colonist. They shape shift but the markings stay true to type.
    This is the equivalent of dumping your toxic waste in some amenable ex colony. M
    Patel, my soul is white anglosaxon imperialist, feel my compassion…teehee!

    1. 220418 says:

      Indeed! Far from being ‘toxic’, migrants are potentially a valuable economic resource.

      The role of migration in the economy is one of ‘creative destruction’, injecting innovations that simultaneously destroy the constraints of old traditions and practices. MIgrants introduce ‘dynamic disequilibriums’ into existing cultures, which is the norm of a healthy economy; that is, an economy that’s continually evolving rather than stagnating.

      To realise that potential, however, we need to invest in a social infrastructure that facilitates rather than obstructs inward migration. We need to develop, as Rwanda is doing, an ecosystem of government programmes and services that promote and support inward migration rather than deter and obstruct it. We need more inclusive/decolonised schools, colleges, and universities that can serve as ‘incubators’ and ‘accelerators’ of cultural change or ‘creative destruction’ rather than as ‘conservatoires’. We need to develop more pluralistic value-institutions of truth, beauty, and justice through which the ‘dynamic disequilibriums’ of that migration introduces into civil society can be accommodated through dialogue rather than conflict. And we need to develop a national identity that’s more protean and fluid than the traditional nationalist narratives allow.

      We’re getting there.

  9. Niemand says:

    I think it was ex-Tory MP Rory Stewart who made a good point the other day – this policy is wrong, bad, not going to work (probably) and overall, plain ‘weird’ but it is also weird that so many people want to risk their lives crossing the channel when they are already in a ‘safe’ country, France, and if you believe the rhetoric, a more welcoming and ‘civilised’ place than the terrible imperial and racist England. Yet tends of thousands every year are making the dangerous journey. Maybe some have relatives here, but many don’t and even then, given the serious danger . . . . There are some unanswered questions here that might help understand what to actually do about this problem that isn’t sending people forcibly to Rwanda!

    1. 220418 says:

      The journal, International Health, surveyed 402 people at the former Calais ‘Jungle’ camp back in 2015 and found only 12% wanted to remain in France, while 82% planned to go to England.

      Of those that wanted to travel to England, most said they had a connection to the UK: English was their second language; they already had a support network of family or friends in England; the UK had historic links with their country; etc.. Others expressed unhappiness at the way they were being treated in France; they found life in France unpleasant and wanted to get away from its environment of toxic nationalism.

      Also, we need to get the ‘problem’ into perspective. Only 8% of people who seek refuge in the EU and UK claim asylum in the UK. When measured against per head of population, the UK has only the 18th largest intake of refugees in Europe, which is comparatively middling. As noted above, we need to do more to attract more inward investment of labour and cultural capital.

      1. Niemand says:

        Actually the real ‘problem’ is people taking perilous sea journeys in tiny boats and sometimes dying in the Channel. And it still seems a huge risk to take hardly justified in a rational sense. But as you detail, the reasons are also complex and multiple and need to be seen from the point of view of the refugee, at the same time as saying getting in a dinghy run by people smugglers is a bad idea.

        1. 220418 says:

          But it’s nevertheless a risk worth taking by their assessment. And they’ll only be deported to Rwanda if they get caught.

          The best way to make coming to the UK safer for refugees is to decriminalise it. Then they wouldn’t have to use the people smugglers.

          1. Axel P Kulit says:

            I suspect the people smugglers have some powerful Tory connections,

          2. 220419 says:

            I haven’t seen any evidence of such connections, but the current government’s criminalisation of unregulated migration (a.k.a. taking back control of its borders) is certainly good for the migrant smuggling business.

          3. Niemand says:

            Eh? Are you suggesting Tory politicians are funding / supporting / financially gaining from the people smugglers in France? What is your suspicion based on?

          4. Axel P Kulit says:

            I am basing it on the nature of politics, old scandals like Poulson, and the blatant corruption we see in this government.

          5. Niemand says:

            OK so you are making it up.

    2. Derek Thomson says:

      Do you have any answers in your own mind to these “unanswered questions”? I rather suspect that you do.

      1. Niemand says:

        Actually I don’t. If I did then it would be known anyway as I have no special insight worth anything much. The only thing I can surmise is that for some reason the UK has some kind of special draw that France does not but beyond what 220418 says from the survey I have nothing else. Maybe the mix of reasons given is enough but I have a hunch it is not. I do remember listening to some asylum seekers in the ‘jungle’ and there were some almost mythical ideas of a better place, maybe boosted / engendered by the smugglers’ rhetoric.

        1. Wul says:

          If you were frightened and alone, running out of money, traumatised by war and your brother, mother or uncle lived safely, 22 miles away across the sea, you’d stay where you were?

          Human beings love their families and need to be with them. It is a powerful motivator called “love”. Look it up Niemand. You might gain some insight.

          1. Niemand says:

            There are tens of thousands crossing the channel every year, and many do not have relatives here.

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