The intense hostility to the United Kingdom’s attempt to repatriate asylum seekers in the country to Rwanda, four thousand miles away, was entirely predictable. For one thing, the British public is divided down the middle on the propriety of the plan, which stipulates that Rwanda will receive 120 million pounds upfront with further payments over the next five years to offset the “processing and resettlement of” asylum seekers deported from the UK. According to a recent poll, 44 percent of those surveyed backed the policy while 40 percent opposed it. Furthermore, charities and lawyers representing asylum seekers have raised questions as to its legality. To make matters worse, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has held office since 2000, has been accused of human rights violations and seeking to assassinate political opponents.
While the policy remains in abeyance following an eleventh-hour ruling by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which effectively grounded the flight scheduled to take the first batch of deportees to the East African country, it is clear that what we are witnessing are the initial skirmishes in a legal contest that will, in all probability, continue for the foreseeable future.
If Home Secretary Priti Patel’s announcement immediately after the European Court ruling that “preparation for the next flight begins now” is proof that the Boris Johnson administration remains undeterred, refugee and human rights campaigners are resolute that, given Rwanda’s controversial human rights record, the government scheme effectively boils down to putting the deportees in danger of “a real risk of irreversible harm.” Not to be left out, the Kagame government insists it is more than capable of providing “a welcoming place” where “migrants are taken care of and are able to build their lives.”
Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country, is currently home to an estimated 150,000 refugees from other African countries, many of whom “work as farm labourers and domestic servants.”
The standoff between the UK government and refugee rights advocates encapsulates perhaps the central dilemma of contemporary global migration-balancing the imperative for states to control their borders with a legitimate concern to protect the security and dignity of refugees, many of whom are trying to escape from countries with appalling human rights records.
Human rights abuses and emigration positively correlate, which means that the countries with the least security of human rights are also, unsurprisingly, the world’s largest exporters of refugees. According to Amnesty International, in 2019, more than two-thirds of all refugees came from just five countries—Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar—all of which have consistently occupied the lowest rungs in the Human Freedom Index. Last year, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen, Sudan, and Egypt had the lowest human freedom indexes in the world, while there were five African countries—Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, Burundi, and Libya—among the bottom ten countries with the lowest levels of freedom. In 2020, more than twenty thousand Eritreans fled the northeast African country and applied for asylum in other countries. A one-party state, Eritrea has not held a national election since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Human rights abuses are by no means the exclusive driver of global migration as, increasingly, political persecution tends to interact with (domestic) violence, environmental displacement, and deepening economic crisis. According to the World Bank, the share of people displaced by a combination of these factors has grown from one in 159 to one in ninety-five over the past decade. From all indications, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown fuel on the fire.
While intra-region migration is still the dominant form of migration (the share of intra-regional migration among migrants originating in sub-Saharan Africa was 63 percent last year according to the United Nations, and nearly 40 percent of all migration still takes place within the Global South), the number of people seeking economic opportunity and political protection in the Global North continues to rise, leading some scholars to argue that illegal immigration to the Global North should be characterized as a form of “resistance to global poverty.”
Whether this argument is plausible or not, what cannot be doubted is that illegal migration is fraught with untold dangers. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since 2014, more than nineteen thousand migrants have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, a figure experts believe pales in comparison to the unrecorded fatalities among those trying to cross the Sahara Desert. In 2018 alone, there were at least fourteen hundred migrant deaths on the African continent. Since 2014, more than twenty-four thousand migrants have been recorded missing in the Mediterranean Sea.
Just last week, at least twenty-three migrants died while attempting to cross into Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla from neighboring Morocco.
Nor, evidently, are such unfortunate fatalities regionally circumscribed. Between 1998 and 2020, the United States Border Patrol recorded more than seven thousand migrant deaths along the country’s border with Mexico. From October 2020 through September 2021, there were 557 migrant deaths along the same border. Early this week, at least fifty-one bodies were recovered in San Antonio, Texas, from an abandoned tractor-trailer carrying illegal migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Amid such a grim human toll, proper reckoning has proved elusive. While activists and refugee rights advocates point to the ghastly statistics, states lament the staggering monies spent on refugees whose numbers have shown no indication of abating. Data from the UK Home Office show that nearly thirty thousand people arrived in the UK on small boats in 2021. The UK government claims to spend 1.5 billion pounds annually on the asylum system, “with more than 4.7 million pounds a day spent on hotels to accommodate homeless migrants.” Australia reportedly spends a whopping $350,000 monthly to hold a single refugee on Nauru, an island country in Micronesia. Last year, the Biden administration reportedly spent “at least $60 million per week to care for the more than 16,000 migrant teenagers and children in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.”
For all their disagreement, neither side denies the social impact of illegal immigration, which partly, but to be sure not wholly, accounts for the anti-immigration backlash and the rise of far-right political parties witnessed across Europe and North America. At the same time, intermittent xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the recent ascendance of Operation Dudula, whose slogan is “Put South Africans first” show that what William Galston describes as “cultural and security concerns as well as fears of economic displacement” are by no means unique to the Global North. The rising incidence of xenophobic violence induced the South African government to launch a National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (NAP) in 2019.
While Australia, European Union (EU) countries, and the United States have broadly combined a perceptible hardening of borders with an increased willingness to outsource migration matters to sundry “Third-Party Nations,” “Safe Havens,” “Reception Camps,” “Disembarkation Platforms” and “Third Countries” charged with “pre-entry screening” and “processing” of migrants and refugees, it is doubtful whether, beyond temporary band-aid, these programs offer any real solutions in the long term. In the first place, they do nothing to address longstanding structural and historical drivers of migration. Second, they underestimate the extent to which migration begets further migration, partly owing to the undeniable infrastructural mismatch between the developed and developing countries, but also because continued emigration from developing countries, involving a massive hemorrhaging of much-needed human capacity, often has the unwitting effect of further impoverishing them. This makes migration a net gain for recipient countries, the short-term social discombobulation notwithstanding.
If nothing else, this calls for greater policy attention to the “push” factors behind emigration from African and other developing countries. While African countries have made broad progress toward political pluralism and economic liberalization in recent decades, much remains to be done so that precious talent across technology, health, industry, finance, and education is retained on the continent.
Corruption is a nagging problem, insofar as it continues to stifle economic growth and exacerbate uncertainty, thus stoking the appetite, especially among young people, to look for opportunities elsewhere. Sustained assistance is required in supporting official transparency initiatives and strengthening the sinews of anticorruption advocacy groups both within countries and regionally.
The African Union (AU) must speak up. Often, in the face of unspeakable human tragedy, the AU has reacted with a mix of hand-wringing impotence and exasperating silence. It must rouse itself and strive to live up to the spirit of its Migration Policy Framework (2018- 2030) which seeks “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa.”
Finally, as the world’s youngest continent (with an average age of nineteen years) Africa must find a way to keep and harness the energy of its youthful population. It is never a good sign when, according to the latest Africa Youth Survey, 52 percent of youth “aged between 18 and 24 are likely to consider emigrating in the next three years if their governments do nothing to improve the quality of their lives.”
African countries have it all to do, but the task is not impossible.