Why sending refugees to Rwanda should make you angry

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Just when you think life in the world in 2022 couldn't get any more tragic and heart-breaking, along comes something else to prove you wrong.

I'm thinking of the UK government's plans – currently being challenged in the courts – to send refugees reaching Britain to a place more than 4,000 miles away, namely Rwanda.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has justified the scheme by declaring that it is likely to reduce the terrible trade of human trafficking. In other words, if potential migrants see that they will not be allowed to stay in the UK but will end up half a world away, they will not bother trying to come here to begin with. Thus, refugee numbers will be reduced and human traffickers will be put out of business.

Patel has argued that the plans would help put an end not only to the "deadly trade" of people trafficking but also the "deeply unfair" current situation that "advantages those with the means to pay people traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot." And she has said: "We can provide legal, safe, orderly and controlled ways for people to better their lives, flee oppression, persecution or conflict and enjoy new opportunities."

However, at the very least, the sheer volume of criticism should make her and the government think twice. The plan has been condemned as inhumane, illegal, unworkable and expensive. Those voicing concerns have included past and present Archbishops Justin Welby and Rowan Williams, the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency), Conservative MPs, members of the House of Lords and very many others, including Prince Charles.

What's wrong with it? Almost everything. As the Economist said, it is far from clear "what sort of lives Iranians and Iraqis, the nationalities who sail to Britain in the greatest numbers, will be able to make for themselves in Rwanda. A large proportion of people whom Britain now proposes to deport would be recognised as genuine refugees if they were allowed to remain and have their claims heard in the country... People who have reason to fear persecution in their home countries will now be warehoused in Rwanda rather than making new lives for themselves in Britain."

Marley Morris, associate director for migration, trade and communities at think tank the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), said: "The government's announcement to set up offshore processing centres in Rwanda is unethical, unsustainable, and likely to come at a huge cost to the UK taxpayer. There is also no evidence to show that this method of immigration enforcement is effective. Australia's policy of offshore detention has become a costly failure."

Christian campaigner Krish Kandiah, director of the Sanctuary Foundation, wrote in the Daily Express (of all places): "I agree with the government's desire to smash people-trafficking rings in Europe. We must find a way to stop those who exploit vulnerable and desperate people, those who extort money from them in return for illegal and unsafe journeys across the Channel. But ... sending people 4,000 miles to Rwanda in order to assess them is surely not the best solution. It is not only costly to our nation but highly traumatic to those who are seeking refuge."

And there are alternative ways to sort the issue of people-smuggling. For example, specific plans have been set out by Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, and Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at Oxford University. Another suggestion comes from Thom Brooks, a professor of law and government at Durham University.

As World Refugee Day falls this year on Monday 20 June, wouldn't it be great if this plan had been quashed by then?

But from a Christian perspective there is one, simple over-riding reason why we should be righteously angry. It is simply the command to love. Jesus commands us to love our neighbours. He commands us to love our enemies. In his ministry he demonstrated love to the marginalised, the outcast, the unwanted and the disreputable. The late preacher and writer Brennan Manning told the story of a girl who read the Gospel of Luke for the first time and then exclaimed: "Wow! Like Jesus has this totally intense thing for ragamuffins." Indeed.

Now the commands to love, and the demonstration of God's love embodied in Jesus, do not necessarily amount to a cut-and-dried guide to every individual government policy. Life is complex; there are grey areas. The Christian Conservative journalist Tim Montgomerie has argued: "Christians can legitimately support or oppose the Rwanda policy if – in their souls – their ultimate aim is a safer sustainable refugees policy."

Well, maybe. But maybe not. That's because each individual refugee is an infinitely precious human being made in the image of God. Using individuals as a means to a particular policy end – even one believed to be a "greater good" – is something that is hard to square with Christian theology. If I was a refugee who had risked life and limb to flee an oppressive homeland and then arrived in the UK after a harrowing boat journey, I would not feel "loved" to be put on a plane to Rwanda and informed it was all in the cause of a greater good – a "sustainable refugees policy."

As Jesus puts it: "In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets." It really is that basic.

David Baker is Contributing Editor to Christian Today and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now, available at www.e-n.org.uk in print and online. He writes here in a purely personal capacity.