The Rwanda bill is due to return to the Commons next week. Its implementation would signal the start of and one of the cruellest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen, dwarfing the Post Office scandal as it joins the UK’s long history of institutional failures, incompetence, and deception.
The recent history of this country is peppered with cases of flagrant injustice.
- The 1970s saw the imprisonment of Judith Ward (convicted 1974), the Guildford Four (1974), the Birmingham Six (1975) and the Maguire Seven (1976) – by the 1990s all these convictions were deemed ‘unsafe’ and they were released, having served about 17 years each.
- By 2018, over 80 Caribbean ‘Windrush’ citizens had been wrongfully deported from the UK. Many more had been detained and lost their jobs, homes and families as a result. By mid-2023 the government had paid nearly £80mn in compensation for this miscarriage of justice.
- In the 1990s, girls in Rotherham (and many other cities) were left unprotected from sexual exploitation because they were considered morally unworthy or viewed as unreliable witnesses.
Those who are wrongly convicted or unprotected by the state tend to be poor, vulnerable (sometimes with addiction problems), without a strong family or social network to defend them and from a less-privileged class or nationality. The ‘IRA’ bombers were predominantly Irish and unsettled; the Windrush generation were older Caribbeans; and the girls subject to sexual exploitation were in care and from families that could not protect them.
Some 43% of Post Office victims were from an ethnic minority. The characteristics that render people vulnerable to abuse by criminals also make them vulnerable to abuse by the state.
Believing the worst
Underlying the Post Office failure was a fundamental belief that the level of ‘theft’ discovered through the Horizon system reflected a true picture – so the high numbers, instead of arousing suspicions of error, the Post Office assumed that postmasters were criminally inclined.
This willingness to believe in the essential dishonesty of people is borne out in other scandals – thus complaints of sexual abuse are construed as women and girls trying to get money from wealthy men and Windrush claimants are (still) treated with suspicion and required to offer proof of every penny lost due to government mistakes.
The Rwanda policy is a Post Office (or Grenfell, Windrush, child sexual abuse, contaminated blood) scandal, but unlike with these others, the UK government is the primary perpetrator rather than ill-informed lied to or misled by other public bodies. The government already has all the information it needs to know that it is presiding over an epic disaster in waiting.
We already know Rwanda is unsafe for refugees. The evidence accepted by the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court was very clear on that. We also know from the court evidence that Rwanda cannot, at present, ensure safe judicial decisions and that there is no functioning appeal system.
Systems are faulty
The government’s Rwanda ‘policy paper’ issued on 11 January provides renewed and new reassurances regarding improved safety and systems in the country. These have not been independently scrutinised or verified and primarily relate to paper policies in place at the time of the Supreme Court hearing. It also acknowledges that Rwanda is not recognised internationally as a ‘safe’ country.
We know the systems in place in the UK for determining who should be sent to Rwanda are faulty. Many of those previously dragged on to planes for deportation have been found to be ill and mentally unfit to fly.
Just like Horizon, the Home Office’s systems and processes are not fit for purpose. For example, we learned from a meeting of the home affairs select committee in November that the Home Office has ‘lost’ 17,000 asylum seekers over recent months.
Failure to attend interviews, maintain contact or meet other requirements meant individuals were automatically withdrawn from the system, removed from the ‘legacy backlog’ list, made destitute and effectively forced to take their chances in the illegal economy, unable to access public services, legal work or housing. Asylum seekers seen as uncooperative were thus ‘disappeared’ from the system, irrespective of their needs or the risks they might pose to the UK population.
But there are many reasons why contact is not maintained. Some people disappear deliberately to evade detection or if they find their circumstances intolerable. But as those working in the field can attest, most compliance failures are Home Office created. The Home Office may have moved them (as it frequently does) without recording the new address. Letters are sent to the wrong address or they arrive after the appointment date. Letters are easily lost when sent to overcrowded, multi-occupancy Home Office accommodation.
Asylum seekers often do not have the means to attend interviews, especially at a venue hundreds of miles away, at 9am in the morning. Some may be ill, in hospital (or have died) or have (legitimately) travelled to another place for a few days. Without being able to justify an ‘exceptional’ failure, often in a second language and without support, their claim is rendered ‘withdrawn’.
To help clear the legacy backlog list – one of Rishi Sunak’s commitments a year ago – it no doubt served the government’s purpose that these 17,000 people were dropped from the system. If the Home Office officially knew where they were, they could not argue that contact had been lost.
Just as the Post Office was strangely incurious as to why so many postmasters spontaneously appeared to go rogue following the introduction of the Horizon system, the Home Office seemed unmoved about why thousands of people seeking asylum should suddenly disappear – even when it was so clearly against their interests to do so.
Blind to pitfalls
‘Red flags’ were ignored by the Post Office, and they are being ignored now by our government. It has already had individual cases of injustice and inhumanity drawn to its attention – for example the high number of Afghan interpreters crossing the Channel in small boats because of the UK’s failed promises to provide them with protection. It is aware that a similar scheme failed in Australia and that Australia was censored in the international criminal court. It is also aware that the new age checks (X-rays and MRA scans) are unreliable, yet will make decisions based on them.
MPs (of all parties) have written to say the scheme is designed to fail and that it will never work. There are already over 50,000 people to whom the scheme applies but only 5,000 places over five years. So already 50,000 people are at risk of spending the rest of their lives in legal limbo, destitute and unable to work, or worse still, incarcerated (if the Illegal Migration Act is implemented).
The courts ruled the Rwanda scheme unlawful because they found there was a real risk that asylum seekers would be returned from there to their home country. The government has opted, not to address the courts’ concerns, but to rule that it is the sole arbiter, so the courts must assume Rwanda is safe if the government says it is.
The belief of a significant section of government that the country must leave the European Court of Human Rights for the scheme to proceed successfully is the biggest indication yet that they have little interest in natural justice or fair treatment and would happily pursue any number of miscarriages of justice to press a political point.
Deaf to reason
Like the Post Office, the government is already attempting to cover up damaging information. It did not release the impact assessment into the Illegal Migration Act until after it had passed through the Commons, thus denying MPs the opportunity for proper scrutiny, and it is now refusing to release the full costs of the scheme.
While some people have been quick to accuse Ed Davey of failing to meet with Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, in 2010 (he did meet him five months later), no government minister has met with those who might be sent to Rwanda to understand their concerns or consulted with organisations that advocate on their behalf.
There is a refusal to hear representations from anyone who might legitimately give ministers pause for thought – dismissed as ‘do-gooders’ or ‘lefty lawyers’. If the government is ignorant of the consequences of their decision making it is because it has chosen to be.
The Post Office believed the Horizon programme would answer many of their problems and improve their systems and their commitment to it blinded them to potential pitfalls. This is the Home Office approach to the Rwanda scheme. It has travelled so far along the road to implementation, has invested so much – financially, politically, psychologically – that it is either incapable of seeing the disaster staring it in the face or doesn’t care so long as it secures sufficient votes. This is the political ‘bottom line’. It is also criminal negligence.