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Catherine Deveney: Inhumane Rwanda policy treats refugees like detritus not people

Migrant holding a child.
Asylum seekers making dangerous crossings in small boats do so out of extreme desperation. Photo by Stuart Brock/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Good Friday: demolition day.

Opposite my home stood a beautiful, honey-blonde Victorian villa that once belonged to the 19th-century school, now a library. The two sat in a quiet corner off the main road, the house angled strangely because of the changing city landscape around it.

Despite objections, the digger moved in last week, preparing for new town houses, the long neck of the crane shuddering and jerking, its monstrous jaw tearing at the roof and walls, teeth chewing clumsily at masonry and wood before spitting them to the ground. The roof caved, and the walls crumbled, the stour clouds rising up like a desert sand storm in the city.

When teaching creative writing, I ask participants to find ways of relating events to their own emotional experiences. For me, the poignant ugliness of that destroyed house, the silent shadow it cast, the anger as locals passed by shaking their heads, was the tiniest window into war-torn Ukraine.

I thought about its people every time I passed the window, tried to imagine my entire neighbourhood flattened that way. Lost lives revealed in exposed rooms; scraps of wallpaper clinging to damaged walls; the sadness of a past blown apart; a future unable to be rebuilt in quite the same way.

Seeking safety in Britain? No chance

I can only imagine Home Secretary Priti Patel does the opposite of relating situations to personal experience. How else can we understand her indifference to refugees?

The daughter of Ugandan-Asian immigrants might be expected to use her family history to empathise with theirs. Instead, she takes international buck-passing to new levels.

You are from a poor, struggling, war-torn country, or in physical danger with your human rights, abused, and you seek safety in Britain? No chance. But, let me see if another poor, struggling or abusive regime will have you. Try Rwanda.

Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, claims criticism of the UK Government’s policy to send refugees to Rwanda is “underlying racism” because it assumes “Rwanda is an awful place no one wants to go”, instead of “one of the most prosperous nations in Africa”.

Britain has raised its concerns over human rights directly with the Rwandan government. Though not, obviously, when they are trying to pay them £120 million to offload refugees like the contents of a human garbage bin

Actually, the world bank has highlighted Rwanda’s increasing poverty because of poor nutrition, limited health services, and school closures, so I’ll take Bradley’s views more seriously when he books his next holiday there, or relocates the Mansfield Conservative offices to Kigali.

According to Human Rights Watch, Rwanda has “a known track record of extrajudicial killings, suspicious deaths in custody, unlawful or arbitrary detention, torture and abusive prosecutions, particularly targeting critics and dissidents.”

A protester demonstrates in November 2021 after 27 migrants drowned in the English Channel trying to get to the UK from France (Photo: Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

In fact, Britain has raised its concerns over human rights directly with the Rwandan government. Though not, obviously, when they are trying to pay them £120 million to offload refugees like the contents of a human garbage bin.

And, just while we’re talking racism, what are the chances of any white refugee, from a high profile hotspot like Ukraine, being sent to Rwanda? Minimal.

Their fate is to be trapped in some deliberately over-complicated red tape stranglehold, for which Patel will murmur an “apology”, while refugees from countries like Syria will be quietly shipped to Rwanda. Shame on Patel for her betrayal.

The Rees-Mogg bible never contradicts Boris

Easter Sunday: the ultra-religious Jacob Rees-Mogg tweets: “Christ is risen, Alleluia”, before getting off his knees to argue Christianity with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Archbishop had the temerity to say that sending desperate people to Rwanda was unethical. Since the Rees-Mogg edition of the bible demands deference to the word of the Almighty only when it doesn’t contradict Boris’s, he reached for the ultimate religious trump card.

Jacob Rees-Mogg disagreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury over the government’s Rwanda asylum policy. Photo by Alberto Pezzali/AP/Shutterstock

Why, this was “almost an Easter story of redemption”! Britain was giving Rwanda “an opportunity”! Presumably, the Easter bunny hopped by and told Jacob this while he and nanny were reading Beatrix Potter to his children.

Britain’s twisted narrative on refugees makes me ashamed. It’s a demonising tale about illegitimate presence and illicit aspiration. A tale that says you can scoop people up in the international digger and open the claws to drop them anywhere you like. Detritus.

There is no empathy, and no emotional intelligence, in this proposal. Patel claims it will discourage migrants crossing the channel in small boats. It won’t

Britain can’t even forge a façade of compassion when it comes to vulnerable children: charities are currently protesting that over 350 lone child refugees are abandoned in British hotels with inadequate food and clothing.

By Wednesday this week, the beautiful old villa was an empty space. Restructuring is necessary after demolition – whether physical or emotional.

But the Rwanda strategy, a “troubling development” according to the UN’s refugee agency, is not about rebuilding. There is no empathy, and no emotional intelligence, in this proposal. Patel claims it will discourage migrants crossing the channel in small boats. It won’t.

Desperation has little logic and no borders. When your life is bulldozed, no half-baked “stop” sign will prevent people seeking a passport to survival.


Catherine Deveney is an award-winning investigative journalist, novelist and television presenter

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