Britain’s cruel plans to ‘offshore’ the vulnerable won’t stop with refugees
Britain survived as a state by moving its tyranny and violence out of sight. Priti Patel’s plan to send refugees to Rwanda is business as usual
“What do they know of England, who only England know?” was the ode that Rudyard Kipling once sang. His claim was a confession that, if you really needed to know about the structures that govern this island, you shouldn’t look here at all: you should look at India, Jamaica or Nigeria.
Last week, it was Rwanda’s turn to tell us about ourselves: the UK government announced it had signed a deal to transport asylum seekers who arrive in the UK to an offshore processing site in the East African state before their application would even be considered.
This agreement is the legislative realisation of the admiration that this government and its media cheerleaders have long had for the Australian offshore immigration detention system, where asylum seekers have been held in the harrowing purgatory of island camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for years on end whilst their claims stall.
Australia’s treatment of refugees has been widely condemned by human rights groups and the UK’s plan to imitate it has already provoked the anger of the UN and the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, used his Easter sermon to pass judgement on the government’s plans, declaring that they “cannot carry the weight of our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values; because subcontracting out our responsibilities… is the opposite of the nature of God”.
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Despite the archbishop’s noble sentiments, Britain’s emergence as a state was not so much achieved “by Christian values” as by the kind of spatial differentiation and global outsourcing that this plan for offshore asylum processing invokes. Britain as a state was produced through its imperial project.
English colonial sovereignty over distant islands like Jamaica or Barbados predates the unification of the UK, and the imperial state that subsequently emerged over the 18th and 19th centuries was marked by a legal pluralism that reinforced a jurisdictional distinction between the metropole and the peripheries. A level of tyranny and violence that would be anathema to the rarified atmosphere of liberty being claimed in Britain was not just tolerated in the colonies, but actively encouraged.
Could countries like Rwanda be asked if they are interested in hosting offshore prisons?
The empire gained huge success by decentralising sovereign power and allowing ‘offshore’ authorities the ability to create exceptional states free of the constraints on power that might be imposed on the Westminster state. Petty despots across vast territories in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were able to wield this exceptionalism to terrorise local populations whilst, for many back home, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
However, overreaches in power don’t tend to stay neatly within pre-defined lines, and eagle-eyed observers began to trace an anti-democratic slippage drifting back from the colonies back into the unsullied air of England. During the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of Bengal, even the forefather of modern conservatism Edmund Burke decried the violent excesses of colonial rule in India bleeding back into mainland Britain.
This warning should be heeded by the journalists and commentators enthusiastically championing this new asylum offshoring plan because it will impact only ‘Johnny Foreigner’. Before making such assumptions, they might want to review how immigration policies have influenced the bureaucracy of welfare and criminal justice in the UK over recent decades.
Methods of governance and surveillance across these three areas of social policy have been restructured to increasingly resemble each other as outsourcing companies like Serco and Atos take on responsibilities in immigration and border security as well as running prisons or assessing benefit claimants for their ‘fitness to work’.
If offshore processing sites for asylum seekers can become normal state practice in the UK, could countries like Rwanda also be approached to see if they have any interest in hosting offshore prisons?
One of the few other governments that have been complimentary of the UK-Rwanda asylum plans is Denmark’s, likely because it has its own ambitions for offshore immigration detention. Last year, the Danish government showed how these ideas could expand into criminal justice policy as it announced plans to rent prisons in Kosovo, where it wants to house foreign-born criminals, removing them from the Danish friends and family they might have established before they were convicted.
The UK government has already pointed to an interest in moving in a similar direction, announcing in 2015 that it planned to spend £25m on building a prison in Jamaica when foreign-born criminals convicted in the UK could be farmed out.
These plans were eventually rejected by the Jamaican government, which is now focusing its efforts on removing the Queen as head of state. But if the new Rwanda asylum plan works, could this be revisited?
The latest proposal may be shocking, but it did not come from nowhere. Britain has long tried to reify a distinction between those holed up in its outposts and those resident on the mainland. It’s a political vision that connects Enoch Powell’s image of Commonwealth migrants bringing with them a ‘River of Blood’ to Margaret Thatcher’s warning ten years later that Britain was being “swamped by people with a different culture”. It runs from Thatcher’s one-time protégé William Hague campaigning on a platform of stopping Britain from being “flooded” with fake asylum seekers to Nigel Farage’s Brexit scaremongering.
Those coming to the UK from overseas have been rendered alien and inhuman – even the most vulnerable people on earth, who come to us seeking asylum from some unimaginable horror.
But asylum seekers are not any different from us. Many will have friends or family already resident in the UK. Deporting them to a third country before we have even heard their claims will hurt those people as well, while doing nothing to actually improve the lives of anyone in this country, with its acute cost of living crisis. Flights will be charted, infrastructure built and staff hired, all by a government that says it is unable to afford any more support for people drowning under skyrocketing energy bills.
The plan to transport asylum seekers to Rwanda for offshore process is a sign of a government now left with little to offer a struggling population apart from titillating xenophobic spectacles, even if the ultimate cost of this titillation is a further squeeze on already stretched public resources.
The scheme relies on us accepting the belief that what happens outside the borders of the UK has little relevance to what is going on within it. In a world where crises come in global form – whether it is the climate crisis, economic crisis or another pandemic – the idea that we can simply ship our problems away to some distant outpost is no longer a sustainable belief, if it ever was.
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