Johnny Mercer’s Question Time defence of the Rwanda refugee exchange plan

Meme by Sadie Parker

One of the south-west’s MPs has been in action on BBC Question Time, defending the increasingly expensive refugee exchange scheme officially known as the UK-Rwanda Migration and Development Partnership, or the Rwanda Plan for short. Johnny Mercer, MP for Plymouth Moor View, was given free rein to waffle on about what has become the current Conservative administration’s signature policy. As there is no mandate for the Rwanda plan, which indeed is contrary to the manifesto pledge on asylum seeker policy that the Tories were elected on in 2019, it is worth weeding Mercer’s statement to separate the truth from half-truth and pure fiction. Mercer repeated lines, probably on the instruction of Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), typical of the government’s turbo-charged gaslighting on this issue.

In response to the first formal question from the audience, “Will the Rwanda Bill cost the Conservatives the next election?” Mercer said:

“Look, I think when we are looking at this issue, we need to look at it in the round, which is what we are trying to do. I think, you know, you look at the issue of migration, and certainly illegal migration, and I go out and speak to people in Plymouth and across the country all the time, and it’s the unfairness that they feel of people illegally entering the country.”

Mercer might have a point here IF asylum seekers were illegal immigrants, but they are not. I know from personal experience, having observed my “honorary nephew” (best friend’s son) and his Chinese-Canadian wife jumping through bureaucratic hoops and paying eyewatering sums of money so that she could join him in London, just what an onerous process legal migration to this country is. As a nation, we abhor “queue-jumpers” and people who, say, enter the country on a tourist visa intending to settle here and work in the black economy warrant our disapproval. They are illegal migrants.

However, refugees fleeing war-torn countries, especially those countries where we’ve had a hand in bellicose destruction, are not illegal migrants. It is pernicious and morally reprehensible of the government to attempt to confuse the public by branding them as such. Refugees’ manner of entry into the country may be by irregular means [thanks to the absence of legal routes. Ed], but unless they intend to cheat the system in some way and not regularise their situation via an asylum claim, they are not illegal migrants.

“It speaks to our values and what we believe in and what the country is about that actually we put a stop to that, we put a stop to the trade that sees so many people dead in the English Channel, and we need to control migration into this country.”

Here again there is a gain of truth in what Mercer says. Do we need to put a stop to people trafficking? Yes, absolutely. Is it a tragedy that people are losing their lives in the English Channel trying to reach our country for a better life? Undoubtedly. Is the best way to achieve that persecuting those vulnerable people who succeed in reaching this country via people traffickers through the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan? Highly questionable. If this government sincerely wanted to clamp down on people trafficking and cared about deaths in the English Channel, it stands to reason it would go after the people traffickers, rather than those who are trafficked.

Note that what Mercer, or more likely CCHQ, has done here is use a classic propaganda technique whereby an insidious idea is coupled with a ‘virtue word’ or concept that the public is unlikely to disagree with. In 2020, the Tory government and many of its MPs did the same thing, for example, after Dominic Cummings’ lawbreaking trip to County Durham and day out at Barnard Castle on his wife’s birthday to “test his eyesight”. They told us he only did what any father would in an attempt to make his lawbreaking acceptable to us. (The vast majority of people saw through it.) Here Mercer is using the virtuous concepts of wanting to stop people traffickers and save lives to try to make the Rwanda Plan more palatable to us.

“Now, when you’re trying to do that, clearly it is not an easy task and there are lots of different levers that you need to pull, one of which is the deterrent of Rwanda.”

Do we “need” the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan? It was an idea imported from Israel by Priti Patel. Here’s the thing: Israel trialed the Rwanda Plan, found it to be unworkable, and ditched it. Why on earth did Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister, and Suella Braverman, then Attorney General, think that a failed Israeli policy was good enough for the UK? Could it be because, as BBC Question Time audience members suggested, it was never meant to work and was only ever intended as a “wedge issue” (one that causes division) to distract the public from the government’s many failures?

One of the key justifications the government gives for the Rwanda Plan is that it deters illegal migration. There is zero evidence that Rwanda acts as a deterrent. For that to be true, potential refugees and illegal migrants would need to be aware of it and how it works. Various correspondents have interviewed refugees in Calais hoping to make the treacherous crossing to the UK, including Lewis Goodall for the Newsagents Podcast, Adam Parsons for Sky News, Lucy Williamson for the BBC, and even Mark White for GBNews. In summary, they have found the vast majority of migrants have not heard of the Rwanda Plan and once they have, given the chances of deportation to Rwanda are so low and their hopes of a better life are so high, they say they will attempt to enter the UK anyway. Looking at numbers, this is a smart risk assessment. Rwanda has capacity for 100 refugees. The current backlog of asylum seekers is roughly 175,000. That equates to a 0.06 per cent chance of being packed off to Rwanda. Could the Rwanda Plan win a special award for being the most ineffective disincentive ever dreamed up by a British government?

Frankly, it is an embarrassment, but should come as no surprise when most Brits don’t know the details of the Rwanda Plan. As it has gradually been revealed that “offshore processing” means successful claimants stay in Rwanda as refugees rather than return to the UK, that nobody shipped to Rwanda can ever return to the UK unless they commit a serious crime, and that Rwanda will also send its refugees (e.g. those fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo) to the UK under the scheme, not to mention the astronomical and escalating costs, public support for the Rwanda scheme has plummeted. The most recent YouGov poll on December 8, 2023, for example, found that only one in five Brits thought the scheme offered good value for money. An earlier YouGov poll on November 16, 2023, found that the majority of Brits (52 per cent) thought the Rwanda Plan would be ineffective, while only 28 percent thought it might be effective. On the day the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the Rwanda Plan (November 15, 2023), YouGov found 39 per cent of Brits wanted to scrap the Rwanda Plan entirely versus 29 per cent who wanted to find another third-country partner, 14 per cent wanting to do something else entirely to address the issue, and 18 per cent who didn’t know. (All polling on overall approval/disapproval of the Rwanda Plan pre-dates the Supreme Court ruling of illegality, and so is no longer relevant.)

“Now, clearly that has hit difficulties as it is going through. The Prime Minister is very clear today, you know, that he is sticking with this and we are going to see it through and he is determined to make it work, and I think, you know, he is right, you know, when he talks about, you know, he is the son of immigrants, he knows why people want to come to the United Kingdom…”

It is sickening that the Tories think that because performative cruelty to a group that mostly consists of people of colour (PoC) is fronted by a person of colour, then that somehow makes it OK. This is another well-worn propaganda trick known as “transfer”. The government is attempting to overcome cognitive dissonance caused by the public’s natural compassion when confronted with a cruel policy by subliminally suggesting that because a well-known PoC is OK with the persecution of PoC they need not be worried about it. Another example in a different context might be engaging a female barrister to defend a serial rapist in court.

Given the declining popularity of the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan as manifested in the polls outlined above, Rishi Sunak’s decision to carry on regardless with it is what Home Secretary James Cleverly might colourfully describe (in private) as “bat-shit crazy”.

“… but, you know, coming to this country has responsibilities, you know, contributing to it and being part of the country, it’s not fair on other people if we don’t control this issue, so, look, the Bill is coming forward to the House of Commons next week, and it will be debated by colleagues and I hope people can get behind it…”

True, emigrating to a country means embracing its language, culture, and values, contributing by working and paying tax, and obeying the law of the land. What evidence does Mercer have that those claiming asylum do not wish or intend to do this? For decades there have been interviews with frustrated asylum seekers who wish to offer their skills, but who are forbidden to work until approved. Why not get them out of the hotels and into work on a guest-worker visa, pending adjudication of their claim? Seeing as how successive Tory governments have deliberately (according to recently-resigned Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick) allowed the backlog of claimants to build to the point where it is now costing the taxpayer £8 million a day to house them, this would be a more cost-effective solution. Statistics show that up to 80 per cent of claimants are successful, so presumably Home Office case workers are weeding out those who would not contribute or respect our values.

In the second half of this comment, Mercer makes it sound as though MPs will have a reasonable, open-minded discussion about the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan, and then vote according to their consciences. Would that this were true. The issue is a political football. Tory MPs are far more likely to vote according to the whip or to keep their government job than to vote on conscience, even though this policy is not a manifesto pledge and, technically, the government has no mandate for it. However, some may vote against the Rwanda Plan to try to force a vote of no confidence and install someone like Suella Braverman, Robert Jenrick, or Kemi Badenoch as prime minister. It would only take 29 Tory MPs siding with opposition MPs (who will likely all vote against it, given the dangerous Orwellian precedent it sets of government legislating to define an alternative reality [polite term for a lie] as the truth) for this ruse to succeed.

“… because the other thing is, there is nothing else available, because nobody from Labour has got any ideas on this, there’s a vacuum of ideas on how we are going to deal with what is a very changing, a very modern contemporary issue of all these people coming into the country illegally. I think it deserves a fair hearing.”

This is patently untrue. Labour’s policy would focus on the people traffickers, rather than their victims and would prioritise international cooperation, as this is an international rather than a purely local phenomenon. It would also divert the billions of pounds taxpayers’ money being spent on gimmicks like the Rwanda Plan and the Bibby Stockholm detention barge to hiring qualified caseworkers to improve productivity (which has gone down from 14 cases per day per case worker to just 4 since the Tories downgraded the job in 2013) and shift the backlog, so those granted asylum could become productive members of society.

Mercer’s contention is that government is doing all this already, but the facts simply do not bear this out, given the amount of political capital and taxpayers’ money being thrown at a minor tool like the Rwanda Plan and the Tory government’s repeated rejection of France’s offer to build a processing centre on French soil. Indeed, the Tory government appears to love failure to “fix” this issue, as it provides a useful distraction. Our government repeatedly gaslights the public, trying to make us think all our problems are due to migrants stealing our jobs, leeching off our benefits system, and hogging increasingly rare public services like doctors’ and hospital appointments, rather than due to poor policymaking, negligent governance, and mismanagement of public finances.

“Yes, it’s new – it goes into new areas, but I think that’s what we have to do with a new challenge, and I look forward to hearing the debate next week.”

No, the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan is not new. It was first introduced as a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by Boris Johnson in April 2022, championed by then Home Secretary Priti Patel and on the legal advice of then Attorney General Suella Braverman. This was all the more extraordinary because only the year before, our International Human Rights Ambassador, Rita French, expressing the UK government’s position at the July 2021 periodic review of Rwanda by the UN Human Rights Council, had said:

“We regret that Rwanda did not support our recommendation, which was also made by other States, to conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.”

Johnson, Patel and Braverman thought they were being clever by using an MoU for the Rwanda Plan as it would avoid public scrutiny. Unfortunately, as then Attorney General Braverman should have advised the government and as the Supreme Court pointed out in its recent judgement, MoUs are, in practice, unenforceable. Hence the race to make it the subject of a treaty instead, although how it will be enforced and what remedies will be available if the scheme does not work are “unclear” [polite term for unworkable].

What is clear is that at £290 million and counting, the Rwanda Plan is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money and a diversionary tactic that will do nothing to solve the problem of perilous small boat crossings. The answer to the original question is, yes, the Rwanda Bill should mean the Tories lose the next election, because they are disrespecting our parliament, the rule of law, and the British people with this performative cruelty.

That the refugee exchange scheme known as the Rwanda Plan should be used as an excuse to abuse our parliament to have it pass “a dog is a cat” type legislation, thus setting a dangerous precedent that weakens our democracy’s defences against tyranny, should have us all writing to our MPs this weekend to implore them to vote against it.