Sunak’s demeaning promotion of a bloodstained despot

Published by The i paper (24th April, 2024)

The wily Rwandan leader Paul Kagame has shown great skill at fooling gullible Western politicians into supporting his dictatorship, whether by exploiting guilt over genocide, pretending to prove the success of aid donations or pandering to their inflated egos. This knack led the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron into endorsing his barbaric regime as he held his nation in a vice-like grip for three decades. Yet even this veteran despot must be stunned at seeing how Rishi Sunak has soiled himself, his party and his country in support of his repressive rule.

It was hardly surprising that five Supreme Court judges last year unanimously declared Rwanda unsafe for asylum seekers. It is one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, which has pillaged neighbouring nations, sparked wars that led to millions of deaths, and murdered critics who fled abroad. Scotland Yard has had to warn dissidents in Britain over Kagame’s hit squads, while even the real-life hero of the film Hotel Rwanda was kidnapped and tortured after speaking out for human rights.

Yet Sunak’s response to that verdict was to drive through a new measure to forcibly send a few migrants and refugees into the arms of this grotesque regime before the election, calling it the Safety of Rwanda Bill in a truly Orwellian twist. This demeaning move underlines the desperation of the Government’s plight and its dearth of ideas to win back support from fed-up voters as it confronts the prospect of electoral wipeout after 14 dismal years in office.

Little wonder Sunak is walking around Downing Street reportedly asking if he is out of his depth after spending so much time and money on a stunt that simply exposes his weakness. Ironically, it is intended to show voters the Tories are tough on immigration after the farce of Brexit was followed by a surge of legal migrants, sparking renewed challenge from Nigel Farage and his populist pals.

Just imagine if Downing Street showed such determination to achieve something positive such as sorting out the chronic state of child mental health services, fixing the social care crisis or salvaging the decrepit criminal justice system. Instead – while women must wait more than two years on average in the rare cases that see rapists end up in prison – Sunak has managed to free up 25 court rooms, find 150 judges and drum up 5,000 sitting days to deport some asylum seekers to Africa before the election. These can, disturbingly, include even victims of torture.

This underlines how the measure is wrong – morally, fiscally and politically. It sends out the message that Britain does not really care about democracy and human rights. As I have written before, there are stark similarities between former spy chiefs Kagame and Vladimir Putin, who both became president in the same year and exert control by crushing dissent, stealing elections and stifling freedom. Those Supreme Court judges even pointed out the UK itself criticised Rwanda over “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture”, and highlighted a 2018 incident when police opened fire and slaughtered protesting refugees.

Even during debate over this bill, a Rwandan-backed militia called M23 has been displacing huge numbers of people from their homes in next-door Democratic Republic of Congo.

So we are sending asylum seekers to a regime helping to create many more refugees. UN-backed reports confirm the group’s atrocities and ties to Kigali. One mother of six last year told Human Rights Watch about running into M23 rebels. “They wanted to rape us,” she said. “My mother said no, so they shot a bullet into her chest, and she died on the spot. Then four of them raped me. As they were raping me, one said, ‘We’ve come from Rwanda to destroy you.’”

Then there are the costs – about £1.8m for each deported asylum seeker, according to Whitehall’s auditor. Rwanda has received £240m already, with another £50m to be sent when the bill comes into force – all on top of £900m given to Kagame in aid since he took control of his nation of 13 million people. As the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell told Parliament, it would be cheaper to put each asylum seeker in the Ritz Hotel and send all the under-18s to Eton than to pursue this “incredibly expensive” plan.

He proposed the “much more sensible” approach of recruiting sufficient civil servants to process claims faster – before performing the sort of humiliating U-turn that makes voters despair of Westminster, by defending the scheme after being made a minister.

This bill is designed to overcome concerns over human rights by blocking legal challenges. Sunak says he is prepared to tell ministers to ignore interim injunctions despite the risk of ratcheting up damage claims, while declining to rule out leaving the European Court of Human Rights. As former foreign secretary William Hague warned, ideas such as the removal of judicial constraints on executive power are highly damaging to Britain’s global reputation as a place with political stability and independent courts. Meanwhile. such crass pandering to the populist hard right, a desperate attempt to shore up the crumbling “Red Wall”, will send more moderate and younger voters hurtling towards rival parties.

Last year there were 67,337 asylum applications – yet Rwanda’s current capacity is 200 people. This was a “dead cat” stunt designed to distract from Boris Johnson’s Partygate problems – and Sunak has shown immense naivety in pursuing such an inhumane idea instead of ditching it.

Ministers claim it will be a deterrent, stopping the boats and people smugglers – yet when people are prepared to risk lives to reach our shores, this seems unlikely. This is a callous, costly and cruel gimmick by the Conservatives that underlines their mess made in government, exploiting refugees and promoting a bloodstained dictator in a desperate bid to save some of their own skins.

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