Refugees in Rwanda: Tory racism goes into overdrive

Simon Hannah and Rowan Fortune report on the Tories post-Brexit immigration policy, which displays a further ratcheting up of the hostile environment.


The toxic right wing Conservative government in the UK is playing a competition with itself to see how inhuman, authoritarian and violent it can get before it is overthrown. Alongside the attacks on our right to protest and voting rights is a new post-Brexit immigration policy calculated to be as racist as possible.

After proposing that the Royal Navy ram dinghies full of refugees to ‘deter’ people crossing the English Channel, the latest proposal from the Home Office is to take all people claiming asylum and to fly them to Rwanda for processing. If they are found to be ‘legitimate’ refugees then they will be allowed to stay… in Rwanda. This flies in the face of the UN Convention of Refugees and international laws around how to treat asylum seekers with the UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Gillian Triggs, describing the proposal in terms of treating war refugees “like commodities” to be “transferred abroad for processing”.

Rwanda is a sinister choice to process vulnerable refugees. In 1994 more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in Rwanda by Hutu extremists. While the situation is different more than two decades later, Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about conditions there, including about the specific treatment of refugees. Additionally, Rainbow Migration have flagged serious concerns about LGBT+ protections, as Rwanda has a poor record on that front. Recently a journalist from Rwanda was granted asylum in the UK after he was abducted by government forces and tortured for four months.

Ostensibly the new policy aims to undermine human trafficking and disasters such as the 27 people who drowned crossing the English Channel during November last year. In reality people-smuggling and dangerous journeys are a consequence of the government creating obstacles to safe routes. Nobody would risk nightmarish deaths at sea on a whim, and the mindset that leads to creating increasingly cruel deterrents will not end in a more humane situation overall.

Racist motives

Moreover, Johnson’s dog-whistling about burdens on the tax payer and Britain’s alleged limited capacity transparently shows the true motives for these actions. Having earned the backing of a racist electoral base during the Brexit campaign, the government must constantly satiate the callous culture of resentment they summoned from the depths of English nativist ideology. They woke a monstrous wellspring of misdirected anger and sadism, and now they are compelled to keep it alive.

Inevitably this racist policy is welcomed by the most backward and reactionary elements in British society. Fed a diet of right-wing propaganda and racist lies about asylum seekers and immigrants, some are being driven into a state of frenzy. For them nothing less than executing unarmed refugees on the coasts of Dover is sufficient. They see all foreigners as violent criminals, benefit cheats, ‘bogus asylum seekers’ and whatever other caricature they can conceive. They not only fail to see the difference between a refugee and an economic migrant in terms of the law – they simply do not care.

And this toxic political situation has been created by the Tories (with help from Labour when it was in power) and now feeds the overall Tory Party agenda. The Tories slash public services, deepen the housing crisis with their policies and drive down wages. This makes it all the more perverse when some voters are persuaded to support their racist immigration policies because, “We simply cannot have more people draining resources from the NHS or taking housing.” The Tories create the problem then claim to be defending Britain from other people who are also struggling to survive.

And this is the danger of the modern age of creeping authoritarian and fascist politics. There are increasing swathes of people in countries around the world where ethno-nationalism is the defining feature of their politics. There has always been racist voters in Britain, but they might also be motivated to vote about the NHS or building more housing. Now millions of voters see the world only through an ethno-nationalist viewpoint, that all the problems are caused by immigration, by ‘foreigners’ by people with different religions or skin colours. This is the politics that led to Trump, that fuelled the Brexit vote, that has led to the rise of Modi and other far right ideologies around the world.

Socialist response

As socialists we defend the right of any human being regardless of background to live anywhere that best suits them and their situation. We do this because we understand that organising the world between capitalist nations is not “natural” or “unavoidable”, but a relatively recent historical development that now arbitrarily and unjustly divides workers according to accidents of birth. If someone wants to move to another point on the globe that crosses some imaginary lines called borders, then they should be allowed. If the rich can live anywhere that pleases them, then the poorest person should be permitted to do so too.

This goes for refugees from wars as much as people fleeing poverty. Socialists challenge the artificial division between refugees and immigrants, between charity and economics. We extend solidarity to all people struggling for a better life.  Racism and nationalism are the Achilles heel of the working class and need to be confronted outright, rather than pandered to and thereby given legitimacy. Marx commented on this in 1870:

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.

This antagonism is kept artificially alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

Additionally, as socialist we reject the liberal counter argument to racism that Britain should welcome ‘good migrants’, by which they mean people with skills that are useful to the British economy. This is capitalist logic, seeing people as commodities that can help make money for industry and worthless or only deserving of charity and pity if not. It is utterly wrong to see the worth of another person in such degrading terms, not only because it is dehumanising to them, but because it is an obstacle to our own humanity. And the fact that this is the dominant view in the Labour Party tells you everything you need to know about their politics.

Labour’s specific response to the Rwanda proposal is that it would cost too much money. “The cost of sending refugees to Rwanda would be billions. Where is the money coming from?” tweeted Yvette Cooper, the current Shadow Home Secretary. This heavily implies that if the proposal was completely funded through taxing the rich then Labour would back it, albeit with ‘concerns’ about ‘possible’ human rights issues.

Socialists also reject the argument that immigrants are a drain on the economy, that they only take space in the NHS or ‘steal’ jobs. The fact is that immigrants work and create jobs. The economy is not a zero-sum game where working class people are just pitted against each other in a war to the death. That appears to be the case for atomised workers operating under degrading capitalist conditions, but it is an illusion perpetuated by bourgeois propaganda that infects and calcifies people’s worldview. Directing anger at newly arrived people for getting a home displaces anger from the government’s failure to invest in new affordable housing, to allow councils to build more or to seize the thousands of empty homes of the rich that lie empty. It precisely prevents workers from acting together to understand the true cause of social miseries.

The trade unions have relatively good policies on opposing racism. Leveraging their money and organisational might they must form a massive social movement against this policy, campaigning across society, reaching parts of the country where the unions presently barely exist or have little political weight. We need a movement that starts with a class argument about why the British capitalist class are racist, illuminating that racism is not an aberration on a normal functioning capitalism, but part and parcel of how capitalism functions.

Fortunately, the potential for solidarity still persists. The recent outpouring of sympathy for the plight of Ukraine and for Ukrainian refugees shows a path forward. It is true that attitudes to Ukrainians stands in stark contrast to, for example, attitudes to those fleeing conflicts and poverty in the Middle East or in various parts of Africa, and that this exposes the embeddedness of racist ideology in our society, but nonetheless the capacity for empathy has again proven itself and it is up to socialists to make the case for extending that empathy to all human beings, in recognition of the universal humanity we intrinsically share.

This means we must fight for empathy. The collapse of empathy among so many people is a by-product of their own miserable circumstances and the terror they feel living in the precariousness of late-stage capitalism. The overwhelming impression many have is of societies in rapid decline, scrabbling over geopolitical advantages with escalating conflicts everywhere. Things are desperate and this feeds into a negative politics around race, gender and class. Only through shared victories in struggle against racism and all forms of barbarism can we overcome that hopelessness and myopia.

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Rowan Fortune authored Writing Nowhere; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the collaborative book System Crash. It writes on utopian imagination, revolutionary theory and trans* liberation.

Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.

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