Why on earth would the British government unveil a controversial plan to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to Rwanda (3,700 miles away)?
Boris Johnson recently declared that anyone who has entered the United Kingdom since the start of the year ‘may’ be relocated to the country in central – east Africa. While some details appear to remain a little ambiguous, the facts are the British government will screen asylum seekers after arriving at the UK, provide their personal information to the Rwandan officials ahead of their departure to Kigali, and the Rwandan government will settle the successful applicants in Rwanda. Asylum seekers unsuccessful with their claims will be forced to return to their country of origin or another country where they have the right to reside.
The British government’s commitment to pro-Brexit voters to curb unprecedented levels of asylum claims, is a factor behind this partnership. In 2020, a total of 8,417 people crossed the Channel in boats. Figures compiled by the BBC reveal that at least 28,431 migrants made the perilous journey in 2021, despite extraordinary investment in France by the UK government to prevent the journeys. It is no wonder Boris is keen to stand by his promise to the voters and get the migration figures down, come what may. However, these figures, which do not include 2022, tell a heart-breaking story.
Asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are desperate to flee their homeland because of the intersect between war, famine, and persecution. Exodus is at the very heart of this story as push and pull factors force people to abandon their communities and their loved ones for unfamiliar terrain. These figures reiterate the pain of exclusion and the human cry for inclusion and safety.
It is for this reason that I stand with the chorus of people calling for an equitable and justice-orientated solution to the migration challenge. Like others, I am not able to understand the reasons why the government has engaged in a partnership with Rwanda, a country with a highly problematic human rights record.
The UK is signatory to two key international treaties, both guaranteeing the rights of all refugees: the UN Refugee Convention protects people from being sent to a country where they face serious threats to life or freedom. The European Convention on Human Rights is the second. This states that no one person shall be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, or punishment. Why, if honouring the letter and spirit of these conventions is important, have the UK government selected Rwanda as their migration partners?
Not long before this policy was signed, the UK expressed deep concerns about alleged human rights abuses and the protection and support of victims of trafficking. Rita French, the UK’s international ambassador for human rights, expressed ‘regret’ that Rwanda was failing to conduct ‘transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.’ Knowing this, why would the UK government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?
The Archbishop of Canterbury was right to say that ‘this plan is the opposite of the nature of God’. The idea that God is love challenges the idea of sending asylum seekers to a country whose human rights may be questionable. The Trinitarian discourse – God as three in one – is centred around the God of love. The one God as Trinity traditionally labelled as Father, Son and Holy Spirit exists in a single loving, non-hierarchical, power sharing communion. This love takes its narrative form in the account of the Father sending the Son, forever present in the world on a quest to enable all those reflecting His image to find love with God and in loving and safe communities.
This includes asylum seekers and refugees who are among the most vulnerable communities in the world. The word that became flesh inhabited more than just the world as we understand It. His humanity means he can fully participate in the sufferings of those fleeing for their lives. Jesus gets it even if our government does not. The actions of Jesus – his love and commitment to the vulnerable – is what He expects from the church.
The church is invited to do far more than grapple theologically with this set of complex issues. Rather, Jesus invites His church to be courageous, engage in uncomfortable discourses and speak truth to power with boldness and conviction. Our government’s approach to how it cares for those that have been othered speaks volumes about the government’s priorities. The church must set an example, cultivate a compassionate posture by digging deeper into its prophetic imagination.
The scriptures have much to say about a prophetic community. The Psalmist articulates, at some length, the essential character of God. He is totally committed to upholding the cause of the oppressed. He defends the fatherless, the widow and of course the refugees. God’s concern for the vulnerable is woven through the Psalms, it marks the overarching message of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets did not speak into a vacuum. They spoke God’s truth into an unjust context, exercising advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable, and they provided a template for the church to emulate.
The Archbishop of Canterbury exercised his prophetic imagination by warning the government that their plan to deport refugees to Rwanda could not ‘stand the judgement of God’. As the head of the Anglican Communion, a representative figure set aside to exercise prophetic imagination on behalf of the Church of England, his must not be the only voice that challenges a heinous policy which is clearly ‘the opposite of the nature of God’.
Wale Hudson-Roberts is Justice Enabler at the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the pastor of John Bunyan Baptist Church in Cowley, Oxford.