How would Rwanda work?

It depends on the carefully measured cruelty of the institutions we ask to be cruel on our behalf

Everyone understands that the Rwanda scheme is designed to provide a deterrent. This is why the scheme doesn’t need to accommodate all the asylum seekers arriving in Britain – or even more than a handful. It’s weighted so that only the precise number that will provide the expected deterrent need be sent there. In fact, for its designers, there’s a kind of ideal outcome: that Rwanda works – provides the necessary deterrent – without their having to send a single person there. In this scenario the cruelty can remain on paper only and need never actually be enacted.

The scheme’s been cleverly designed. Rwanda is a long way from Britain and literally in the opposite direction for most migrants. And, although the genocide in Rwanda was a long time ago, for the scheme’s designers it’s important that people remember it. Ask any advertising creative about this approach – an implicit message that need not be directly stated. The name of the place carries with it almost indelible associations of suffering, up to and including mass slaughter. Those associations are vital to the deterrent. It hardly matters that the country has come a long way, that it’s nominally a safe and well-run country now. It’s enough to chill the blood of even an ordinary Brit, with no prospect of being sent there. For suffering migrants, even migrants who are fully up-to-date with the happy state of Rwanda in 2024, it can only amplify the fear and stress – “they want to send me where?”

But, we should acknowledge, states are cruel. Even comfortable and relatively prosperous ones like the one we live in. The state won’t let you off a parking ticket, will chase you for a student loan for the rest of your life and, in some places, will deliberately take your life if you do wrong. But it’s usually hoped that a state, although it must be cruel, need not be very cruel, or more cruel than is strictly necessary. In this case, just cruel enough to stop the boats. Then we can stop being cruel. It’s an essentially utilitarian argument. But this is a complicated business, so we’ll have to be prepared to be cruel again, or even to come up with some new cruelties – if the boats keep coming.

And, of course, that’s likely. After all, this problem of uninvited migrants isn’t going away – and will probably get worse. The arrivals might continue. They may well do so even if flights to Rwanda actually begin, because migrants are weighing one cruelty against another – and calculating the odds of winding up on one of the planes. And this is also why opponents of Rwanda who say “it won’t work” are wrong. When a critic says that the Rwanda scheme is an expensive waste of money they’re doing so for a reason.

They say these things because they don’t want to say that the scheme is cruel, because they think it would be damaging, in electoral terms usually, to say this when their data suggests the electorate broadly accepts that the cruelty is necessary. These critics fall back on ‘effectiveness’ and ‘competence’ when they think they can’t say ‘cruelty’ (and there’s another concern, in the backs of their minds, that they might feel obliged to pursue a similar policy, so it would be wise not to expose themselves to future charges of hypocrisy by going on about cruelty now).

The prototype for Rwanda is the Australian offshoring scheme. That scheme worked and the cruelty has now been cancelled, warehoused. Kept in store for another occasion. Australia is no longer cruel but, critically, reserves the right to be cruel again as needed – “we were cruel, but only for a few years and once the cruelty worked we stopped.”

To repeat, sometimes the state is cruel. And we ask our state to be cruel on our behalf. It’s literally one of the perpetual functions of the state, across the whole of modernity. To insulate citizens from being cruel, to promise that we won’t need to be. And we ask the state to do many cruel things.

And if Rwanda does work, the effect of the policy will have been to protect us from the indignity and unpleasantness of being cruel ourselves. It will have displaced the cruelty, pushed it back up the pipeline, back to the countries upstream from here. Still cruel, just not our cruelty. And, let’s face it, those countries are probably hoping that this cruelty – the Rwanda cruelty – will work for them too, by discouraging migrants from entering those countries on the way to Britain, and that this will have the effect of pushing the cruelty back to a country further up the chain. Job done.

Ultimately, of course, we all hope that the cruelty can be pushed right back up the refugee supply chain to the ruined cities and impoverished regions the migrants come from so we can stop thinking about them all together. So that we need never be cruel again.