Eritrean migrants demonstrate against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda on January 22, 2018. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Rwanda's agreement to take asylum seekers from the United Kingdom has its roots in a similar arrangement made with Israel. There would be fewer asylum seekers if the UK and its allies did not hatch regime change plots and other interventions that disrupt the lives of millions of people.
This article was originally published in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.
Britain announced a new policy in April, to ship asylum seekers thousands of miles to Rwanda in central Africa, “on a one-way ticket.” The move has caused widespread outrage in the UK because it flagrantly violates Britain’s obligations under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.
In fact, Boris Johnson’s government has simply copied wholesale a program established by Israel eight years ago. The only significant difference is that, when Israel introduced the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda in 2014, it did so in secret, fully aware that it was breaking the Refugee Convention it too had ratified.
When the policy came to light, Rwanda initially tried to spare Israel’s blushes by denying its involvement. Israel, meanwhile, falsely claimed the deportations were happening on a voluntary basis.
The British government, by contrast, is being far more brazen. It has trumpeted its similarly abusive treatment of asylum seekers, making a feature of the compulsion. According to reports, the British scheme will deport refugees first, then force them to apply for asylum in Rwanda. If they succeed, they can remain in Rwanda. If they fail, Rwanda can forcibly return them to the place from which they fled.
Johnson presumably hopes the policy will play well with British voters, as they tire of the seemingly endless deceptions and bottomless cronyism of his ruling Conservative Party. The British prime minister is among those fined for breaking COVID lockdown rules his own government set.
With the mood toward Johnson souring, however, he may have been caught off-guard by the backlash. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, condemned the Rwanda plan in an address on Easter Sunday, saying the failure to take responsibility for refugees was “the opposite of the nature of God.”
Some have dismissed the scheme as the prime minister’s latest wheeze to deflect attention from his political troubles. But that would be to ignore a growing confidence on the British right toward treating asylum seekers inhumanely—especially those who are not White. The Conservative Party has been amplifying deep-rooted nativist tendencies in the UK—and drawing inspiration from Israel, which has long experience of turning itself into a fortress state.
In a sign of the continuing need to pay lip service to humanitarian concerns, Johnson’s government has publicly dressed up the new asylum policy as a move to prevent people-smugglers from endangering the lives of refugees by transporting them in inflatables across the Channel from France. Dozens have died.
But Britain’s real motive—barely disguised—is the same one that drove Israel to adopt the policy. It wants to wash its hands of its legal obligations toward refugees by outsourcing responsibility to far poorer countries whose services can be easily bought.
Britain is trying to make clear that anyone arriving on its shores will face not a warm welcome or British justice but the very oppressive conditions from which they fled in the first place. Johnson is demonstrating that post-Brexit Britain has the freedom to reinvent itself as the most hostile corner of Europe for refugees.
Rwanda is an ideal destination, the reason it has attracted the attention of both Israel and the UK. Helped by Western leaders like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Rwanda has largely succeeded in whitewashing its image with Western publics following the Rwandan genocide of the mid-1990s.
But most Africans are aware of Rwanda’s long-term corruption and history of human rights abuses, which have continued since the genocide ended. Despite a simplistic narrative of those events in the West, more recent research suggests it was not just Tutsis who were victims of violence. Tutsi militias under Paul Kagame appear to have waged their own brutal ethnic cleansing operations against Hutus. Kagame has served as Rwanda’s president for more than 20 years.
Officially absolved of wrongdoing, however, Kagame and his government have evaded proper scrutiny, leaving them largely free to enrich themselves and crush dissent.
Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director of Human Rights Watch, recently observed of Rwanda, “Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities are commonplace, and fair trial standards are flouted in many cases.”
Taking asylum seekers off the hands of rich countries is a money-making opportunity for Rwanda’s leaders. Once the refugees land in Kigali, British officials—like their Israeli predecessors—are unlikely to care how they are treated.
And as was clear under the Israeli scheme, Rwanda has little interest itself in encouraging the asylum seekers to remain inside its borders. Of the several thousand dispatched by Israel to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, the vast majority soon left.
It was a win-win for everyone but the refugees themselves, many of whom ended up either making a second perilous journey to safety or found themselves back in the very areas from which they had originally fled.
Like other governments in the global north, Israel and Britain share a distaste for asylum seekers, preferring to portray them as illegitimate “economic migrants.” In Israel’s case, refugees are chiefly seen as threatening the country’s ethnic purity as a Jewish state. And in the UK, they are viewed as taking jobs and diluting the supposed British values that once made the country a global empire.
Both Israel and Britain have been working hard to isolate themselves from the wider region to which they belong. That has made it easier to control their borders and keep out unwelcome visitors.
Israel has long viewed itself as an ethnic fortress, its borders protected by soldiers, electronic fences, drones and watchtowers. Britain, meanwhile, has been able to take advantage of its geography, as an island fortress protected by the sea. That view has only deepened with Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union.
And for that reason, Britain has increasingly looked to Israel for ideas on how to curb the “problem” of asylum seekers.
Israel quickly developed what were seen as “deterrence” measures against refugees fleeing wars and ethnic tensions close by in Sudan and Eritrea. Back in 2010, Israel began work on a 230 km steel barrier across its shared border with Egypt, the only gateway into Israel for African asylum seekers. It took three years to complete, but the fence reduced the flow of refugees from 10,000 a year to barely a trickle.
Israel adopted an equally harsh approach to the 55,000 already inside its borders. While European governments have assessed more than 60 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers as genuine, using tough criteria, Israel has accepted only 1.5 percent of claims.
Instead, Israel has declared the refugees to be illegal “infiltrators.” Many were forced into Holot, a giant detention camp Israel built for them in the Negev desert, despite repeated rulings from Israeli courts that imprisoning the refugees broke Israel’s own laws as well as international law.
Trapped between its desire to be rid of the asylum seekers and the rulings of its courts, Israel secretly agreed to pay Rwanda and Uganda to take them off its hands. The refugees had a choice between imprisonment in Israel or being deported.
The world took little notice. But reports in the Israeli media at the time suggested that Kigali may have received arms in return for taking the unwanted asylum seekers—an apparent return to Israel’s reported involvement in selling weapons to Rwanda that fuelled the genocide there nearly 30 years ago. Prominent Rwandan dissidents have also found their phones infected with spyware developed by the Israeli firm NSO.
Britain is similarly rigging the system to treat asylum seekers as law-breakers. In outlining the policy in April, Johnson told coastguard officials near Dover, “Anyone entering the UK illegally…may now be relocated to Rwanda.” He forgot to mention that, for those fleeing persecution, it is invariably impossible to find a legal route to enter Britain.
Britain’s new policy is a reversal of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent plan to intercept and turn around boats carrying refugees in the Channel—a maritime equivalent of Israel’s barrier along the Sinai border.
Such a policy was always going to be more difficult to enforce than Israel’s electronic fence, and even harder to defend. Blocking the passage of inflatables in the Channel simply increased the risk of the boats capsizing or sinking.
So the UK is now following Israel down the Rwanda path. Patel called it an “incredible” country and said other European states were looking to follow suit with their own refugee populations. Notably, Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, has in recent years been turning to Israel for advice on “border security.”
Patel’s fingerprints on the scheme are noteworthy. In 2017, she was called back from an official visit to Africa as international development minister after it came to light she had conducted clandestine meetings—hidden from her own department—with Israeli officials and lobbyists. She was forced to resign. But those ties have never been properly scrutinized.
Israeli and Jewish human rights groups have long been shocked by Israel’s continuing abuse of asylum seekers. They highlight that Israel is a nation of refugees who fled European persecution and that the young state of Israel even played a key role in instigating the 1951 Refugee Convention. How can it willfully turn its back on those fleeing persecution today, they ask.
But that is to misunderstand what Israel’s founders were determined to achieve. They helped to draft the Refugee Convention immediately after they had driven many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their historic homeland, turning them into refugees overnight.
A Jewish state was always intended as an ethnic fortress, one that could not be shared with the native Palestinian population. Laws against so-called “infiltrators” and against the immigration of non-Jews were among the first passed by Israel’s young parliament.
Senior Israeli politicians have called today’s asylum seekers a “cancer.” Their children—like Palestinian children inside Israel—have been barred from schools for Jewish pupils only. Before Israel began imprisoning and deporting asylum seekers, mobs of Israelis attacked anyone looking African in cities such as Tel Aviv.
Britain and other right-wing populist governments find this model of pulling up the drawbridge deeply appealing. Australia, like Britain, enjoys the geographic advantage of being an island, if a very much larger one that is among the least densely populated places on Earth. Since 2013, Canberra has sent asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea or the tiny atoll-state of Nauru.
The first world’s treatment of refugees is already shameful, and the disparity is only going to grow. Developing countries shelter 85 percent of asylum seekers, while Western states host only 15 percent. In Israel, the fraction of the population who are asylum seekers is minuscule.
Johnson’s government is currently trying to pass a new immigration bill to make it even harder for refugees to claim asylum—further criminalizing their efforts to flee persecution and the resource wars that have been initiated or fuelled by Western states such as Britain.
In a world of resources sharply depleted by Western over-consumption, and faced with a future of shrinking economies, privileged states like the UK are preparing for the worst. Israel has led the way for more than seven decades in creating the model of a fortress state “defended” by impermeable steel and concrete barriers, detention centers, segregation and intense surveillance.
Now that knowledge and experience will prove more invaluable than ever as other states line up to copy it.
Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in the UK and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is the author of Blood and Religion and Israel and the Clash of Civilisations (available from AET’s Middle East Books and More).