The Britain-Rwanda refugee deal, sordid 21st century imperialism and economic coercion

The UK government announced, in April this year, an arrangement with the East African nation of Rwanda, to relocate asylum seekers to the latter nation. The UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel, herself born to a family of Ugandan-Indian refugees, stated that this deal with Rwanda will deter people smugglers.

Asylum seekers, after being processed in the offshore detention facilities in Rwanda, will be required to stay in that nation for five years. It is unclear what will happen to those unsuccessful refugee applicants.

Rwanda, having recovered from the ravages of warfare and genocide in the early 1990s, still remains one of the poorest nations on earth. Its human rights record is questionable, to say the least. It is not clear, beyond changing a hostel into a detention camp, how relocated asylum seekers will be housed and treated. There is though, a deeper issue which needs to be examined – the coercion of poor nations by rich imperialist countries to act as border guards, taking unwanted arrivals.

Offshore processing – a euphemism for institutionalised people trafficking – is a new way that rich nations dump the problems of unwanted migrants onto the poorer nations. While the UK-Rwanda deal is framed as a partnership, the reality is quite different. The UK’s per capita GDP is immensely larger than that of Rwanda. The poor nations face unequal conditions in the international arena. The imperialist nations are in a position to make aid and financing conditional on the forcible relocation to poorer nations of asylum seekers.

This kind of arrangement could best be described as a form of imperialism, 21st century style. The UK-Rwanda arrangement is not the first of its kind. Indeed, the inspiration for outsourcing the refugee issue comes from the Australian government’s Pacific Solution. Bribing the poorer nations of the Asia-Pacific region, successive Australian governments have detained asylum seekers in offshore camps in Nauru and Manus Island. Alexander Downer, former foreign minister and advocate of offshore processing, is one of Priti Patel’s advisers.

Implemented by the Australian Tories – the ultra conservative Liberal party – the Pacific Solution was revived, after a brief suspension, by the conservative Labour party in 2012. Offshore processing doubly victimises the asylum seekers. The latter, fleeing wars and conflicts instigated by the imperialist states, are denied their fundamental human right to seek asylum under the International Refugee Convention.

The EU, for some time now, has been using the African nation of Niger as an outsourcing migration laboratory. Niger, another impoverished nation, accepted millions of euros in aid on the condition that asylum seekers – those from outside of Europe – would be housed and their applications processed there. Rich nations have transformed international aid from a policy of development into an instrument of short term geopolitical interests.

In fact, the EU-Niger refugee arrangement is a way for the EU nations to construct a border patrol in the Sahel; rather than wait for asylum seekers to approach the heavily patrolled and militarised Mediterranean Sea, the flow of non-European refugees is stemmed and controlled by the poorer nations themselves. Outsourcing border patrols and coercive migration controls is part of a wider strategy to gain economic footholds in the poorer but resource-rich nations.

The richer nations have had decades of toxic political debate about immigration, multiculturalism and asylum seekers. Demonising refugees and alleged ‘queue-jumpers’ has influenced election campaigns and outcomes. Throughout the prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politicians denounced African refugees as ‘infiltrators’, a ‘cancer’ in the society. Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers were relocated from Israel to Rwanda.

Priti Patel’s background, as the child of Ugandan Indian refugees, draws a spotlight on the issue of the 1970s Uganda Asian refugees. The latter – known as Asians back then – were persecuted by the regime of General Idi Amin. Britain, having originally backed Amin’s rise to power, condemned his government’s mistreatment of the Ugandan Asian community.

Britain, over the objections of racist and right wing politicians and pundits, accepted Ugandan Asians as refugees. It would be wrong however, to forget that the Ugandan refugee crisis was the result of cumulative and historical decisions by Imperial Britain to import and privilege one ethnic group over the majority Ugandan population. This is not to excuse the actions of the Amin regime. The purpose is to highlight the original criminal policy of the British empire; divide and rule.

The British empire implanted generations of economically driven imperial service communities; after decolonisation they become the acceptable refugees. The unrelenting hostility directed at non-European refugees contrasts sharply with the favourable and welcoming attitude towards the recent outflow of Ukrainian war refugees. Rather than pushing refugees onto someone else, there are practical solutions to the refugee outflows, addressing the wars and inequalities that produce them.

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