The Guardian • Issue #2098

UK Rwanda scheme copies Australian failure

youth behind fence

Photo: Mitchel Lensink (@mitchellens.ink) – www.rawpixel.com Public domain.

The UK has begun mass arrests of migrants in preparation for Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation scheme. The UK Home Office, which manages immigration, has released footage of armed immigration officers handcuffing individuals at their homes and escorting them in deportation vans.

The plan has already hit a major roadblock. Government data  reveals that while 2,143 migrants have been “located for detention,” more than 3,500 individuals are unaccounted for. The scheme, approved under the Safety of Rwanda Act, was declared unlawful by the UK Supreme Court last year. Despite criticism from unions, human rights organisations, and several of their own MPs, the Tories have maintained their commitment to the plan.

The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights released a 52-page report in February which found that the Rwanda scheme is “not compatible with the UK’s international obligations” to human rights and international law. So why is Sunak’s government still committed to its deportation plan?

As workers in the UK and other western countries face worsening housing and cost-of-living crises, anti-immigration rhetoric serves to pass the blame from capitalism and neoliberal governments to fellow workers. Rather than acknowledge capitalism’s cyclical economic collapses, or decades of austerity regimes which have carved out more and more wealth for the owning classes from public programs and workers’ wallets, anti-immigration scaremongering seeks to turn workers against each other and drum up political support for parties aligned with corporate interests.

Australians should recognise the similarities between the UK’s Rwanda plan and Australia’s own deportation and detention schemes with Cambodia, Papua New Guinea (Manus Island), and Nauru. Scott Morrison, in his 2022 election campaign, cited the UK-Rwanda deal as evidence of Australia’s border security success, stating “other countries are taking their lead from Australia’s successful approach.”

Introduced by the Howard government in 2001, then strengthened by Abbott’s ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ plan in 2013, Australia’s offshore processing regime has enjoyed continued support from the Albanese government. Governments around the world have taken inspiration from Australia, as shown by rhetoric from Germany and Austria, as well as Italy’s detention of immigrants in Albania. China exports electric cars, Italy exports fashion, and Australia, it seems, exports expensive ways of using asylum seekers as scapegoats.

Australia’s record regarding offshore detention and resettlement should cause major concern regarding the future of the UK’s Rwanda scheme. In 2014, Australia agreed to pay the Cambodian government $55 million to resettle refugees from Nauru. In total, only seven people were resettled. That’s $7.8 million per person. Alleged corruption has also been rife, such as the Paladin affair – $423 million was paid by the Australian government to Paladin, which works out to an average of $1600 per person every day to detain refugees on Manus Island.

International human rights organisations have also repeatedly criticised Australia’s offshore detention schemes, with the policy widely regarded to be in direct contradiction to Australia’s commitments to international law. The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor office has referred to Australia’s policy as “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” citing “sporadic acts of physical and sexual violence committed by staff.”

Australia’s experiences with offshore detention should therefore be a warning for the future of the UK’s Rwandan deportation plan. Stronger government powers to detain and deport immigrant workers serves not only to exploit those who are deported, but also to enable further exploitation of those who remain. Under threat of detention and deportation, immigrant workers can be paid less, denied their benefits, and punished for speaking against exploitative or unsafe work practices. Meanwhile, non-immigrant workers also suffer the consequences, as they are pressured into accepting worse pay, conditions, and benefits by the threat of replacement by immigrant or offshore workforces that are more easily exploited. Furthermore, public programs such as healthcare and education have funding cut while anti-immigration schemes receive billions.

Workers in the UK, Australia, and across the world must recognise anti-immigration rhetoric as dangerous to the wellbeing of immigrants and workers alike. The Australian example has proven the offshore detention and resettlement model to be intentionally cruel and expensive, to proliferate racial violence, and to undercut workers’ rights. These experiences set a dark precedent for the UK to follow.

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