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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

Rwanda - a lesson in 'fake news'

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Boris Johnson started it.

On 14 April 2022 he said that the deal struck with Rwanda meant that anyone entering the UK illegally may now be relocated there "from today".

That phrase, "from today", was the first of many distortions, exaggerations, boasts and lies that have been told by advocates of the 'Migration and Economic Development Partnership' - the agreement with Rwanda that is now in ruins after five judges in the UK Supreme Court unanimously and unequivocally ruled it to be unlawful.

I'm not going to repeat the court's conclusions nor the legal implications - others have commented on that. Lord Sumption, Joshua Rozenberg, Sunder Katwala and Adam Wagner are among those who have provided thoughtful and insightful analysis.

But it's important to reflect on the ways in which government ministers, and on one occasion a senior official, contributed to a false narrative about the Rwanda scheme, minimising defects and obstacles, creating unrealistic expectations and obscuring from the public the reality: this was a rushed, botched, grossly expensive and ethically dubious deal with a country that isn't equipped to safely and reliably process asylum claims. It should never have been signed.

Tens of thousands

Johnson's announcement created an impression that the plan was 'oven ready' (to steal a phrase he once borrowed for another contentious accord) when it was not. He said it was "uncapped"and that Rwanda would have the capacity to resettle "tens of thousands of people in the years ahead". It took two months for ministers to reveal that Rwanda had made "initial provision" for only 200 people.

They were also forced to admit that the purpose of the scheme was not to send "thousands" of asylum seekers to Rwanda, as the then Prime Minister had implied, but for it to act as a "deterrent". Perhaps they had initially shied away from that argument knowing that there was, and remains, no evidence to support it.

Tom Pursglove was caught out during a session of the Home Affairs Select Committee in May 2022. Pursglove, who was then the Minister for Illegal Migration, bragged that the pact with Rwanda was a "world first" and there would be a "deterrent effect". But he was unable to "quantify" it and couldn't point to "any modelling or evidence base". In fact, the Home Office Permanent Secretary, Matthew Rycroft, had already noted by then that the "evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain", but the cocky Corby MP thought he knew better.

In general, Rycroft has been a voice of reason and calm in the debate about the Rwanda deal, pointing out, for example, that the Home Office had no evidence that it would provide value for money. However, even he appeared to succumb to the propaganda swirling around his department when he told the Committee in June 2022, "There are already—possibly—the beginnings of some deterrent effect visible". In fact, last year turned out to be the worst ever for small boat crossings in the Channel, with 45,755 making the journey. If the prospect of being sent to Rwanda did create a "visible" deterrent the Permanent Secretary must have used an electron microscope to see it.

Pursglove, though, was on a different planet. He refused to accept claims of "systemic human rights abuses" in Rwanda, although they had been highlighted by his own government the previous year in a United Nations review of the country. The Government had criticised Rwanda for “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”, while officials advised ministers during the search for an asylum-partner state that it had a poor human rights record. Burying his head in the sand doesn't adequately describe the Minister's stance - he had the gall to say, "Some of the sneering that we have seen about Rwanda in recent weeks has been really regrettable and very disappointing."

Warning signs

His boss was no better. Priti Patel repeatedly pledged during her tenure as Home Secretary between July 2019 and September 2022 that she would cut the number of small boat crossings and make the route "unviable" - promises that failed to materialise. So, when she asserted that the Rwanda agreement "fully complies with all international and national law" we ought to have known then that she wasn't right. In June 2022, when the first flight was cancelled because of legal challenges and a last-minute injunction by the European Court of Human Rights, Patel was in full PR mode again, saying "preparation for the next flight begins now" as though it was just a question of hoovering the aisle and clearing the runway.

Her successor ignored the warning signs as well. At the Home Affairs Committee in November 2022, Suella Braverman said she didn't know the details of Israel's failed asylum deal with Rwanda and hadn't read damning assessments of the country by Human Rights Watch and the US State Department. She seemed to give more credence to her own, limited experiences, over a decade earlier. "I have actually visited Rwanda twice, quite a while ago—around 2010 or 2009. I have always found Rwanda to be a very inspiring country," she said.

Like Patel, Braverman continually expressed her confidence that the Government would be able to get flights going "as soon as possible" and that the scheme would work as a deterrent. With a Court of Appeal challenge looming, the Home Secretary visited Rwanda in March this year saying she had "strengthened" the agreement. Whether she privately harboured doubts that it would be backed by the Court is unclear but she should have tempered her public statements and been working hard behind-the-scenes on an alternative.


When the appeal court ruled against the Government in June, by two judges to one, there was, once again, a shocking level of complacency with Rishi Sunak and Braverman both emphasising the dissenting view, from the Lord Chief Justice, because it leant support to their arguments. The Home Secretary said she had taken "a lot of confidence" from Lord Burnett's remarks; what she should have done was examine with an objective eye the reasons why the two other senior judges on the panel had ruled that the plan was unlawful. The Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, was also swept up in a tide of hubris claiming that there was only a "narrow point to resolve" when the case came before the Supreme Court. "I am confident that we will secure the result that we seek," he declared.

He was wrong, too. In a withering ruling, the Court demolished any hopes the Government had of getting planes off the ground, but the bluster, the bravado and the blinkers were still evident. The first point James Cleverly made in his House of Commons statement was that the judgment was made "on the basis of facts from 15 months ago", as if the significant long-standing concerns about Rwanda's human rights record, identified by the Court, didn't matter. The newly-appointed Home Secretary said the Government had "anticipated this judgment as a possible result", even though its public statements had suggested the contrary, and that it "had a plan" to deliver the deal. Wasn't that what they had said all along?

Since then, the Prime Minister has announced there will be a treaty with Rwanda, emergency legislation to block appeals and possible changes to the UK's international obligations - all part of an attempt to activate a deal which has no evidence to underpin it. "When I said I would stop the boats, I meant it," said Sunak.

The lesson from the past 19 months is that just because a minister says something will happen it doesn't mean it will happen. We should remember that when we listen to Sunak, Cleverly and Jenrick in the weeks ahead. The Government has invested so heavily in the Rwanda deal - in terms of time, reputation and £140 million - that to reverse direction now would be a humiliating admission of failure. Its only option is to plough on, subverting constitutional and legal norms if necessary while maintaining the pretence that there aren't any other options to tackle the small boats problem when there manifestly are. 'Fake news' has many forms but the false claims made about the Rwanda deal take some beating.

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Nov 20, 2023

It's basically BREXIT over again. Keep saying something has been done / is about to be done / can easily be done, whilst either knowing that's a lie, or being too stupid to know it's not true, and then blaming someone else when it doesn't come to pass.

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