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  • Thomas Shacklock

The Language of Innovation and the UK’s Threat to Human Rights

February 2, 2023

Photo: Migrants in a dinghy navigate in the English Channel toward the south coast of England after crossing from France, on Sept. 1, 2020. [Image credit: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images]

In April 2022, the United Kingdom (UK) announced a plan representing a major change to its asylum policy. Priti Patel, the UK's then-Home Secretary (interior minister) and Rwanda's Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta revealed a deal to outsource Britain’s asylum claiming process. Under the deal, the UK will deport asylum seekers considered to have arrived illegally to Rwanda, to have their claims processed there instead. The “Rwanda scheme” aims to deter asylum seekers who make the desperate decision to arrive on the UK coast in small boats due to the lack of safe routes. It has been widely criticised for violating international refugee law. Notably, the rhetoric employed to promote the scheme provides a case study on the way society is encouraged to think about human rights.

The scheme compares to Australia's abusive offshore asylum processing system and Israel's own similar deal with Rwanda, which critics highlight as a problematic destination. Patel sold the scheme as a “bold and innovative” plan to fix Britain’s “broken asylum system”. Previously, she had declared plans to enact the system's "biggest overhaul" in decades. The government often employs securitised language to instil fear of asylum seekers, as Western democracies often do to undermine human rights, reinforcing a rights-security dichotomy in the public mind. Britain has misleadingly portrayed itself as over-burdened with asylum seekers, and current Home Secretary Suella Braverman has called the boat crossings an “invasion”. Framing the Rwanda scheme as “innovative” converts this fear into a seemingly positive, solutions-oriented, and even rights-respecting approach to a "crisis". Yet, the policy is an attempt to effectively rewrite international law within Britain.

The words “bold and innovative” tap into an undercurrent in British society dating back to the British Empire. This undercurrent fed into the 2016 “Brexit” referendum, where 52% of voters chose to leave the European Union (EU). While this decision was not solely due to imperial nostalgia, the legacy of imperialism played a role. Adding to xenophobic worries about immigration, one key pro-Brexit argument was that Britain could prosper independently as a successful global power. This argument - expressed through the slogan "Global Britain" - evokes Britain’s past as history's largest imperial power. The UK’s prevailing confidence represents the tradition of British exceptionalism. In an EU context, this concept refers to the sentiment that Britain should not be constrained by EU rules. Additionally, this concept can apply to attitudes towards refugees and human rights.

Exceptionalism on human rights is unique to neither Britain nor the issue of refugees. At a societal level, British exceptionalism can be argued to have helped justify the arrests of anti-monarchy protesters in 2022. Together, British and American exceptionalism have rationalised the 2003 Iraq War and the political persecution of Julian Assange. The UK has proposed leaving the European Convention on Human Rights after the European Court of Human Rights stopped the first flight to Rwanda. This proposal follows government attacks on domestic courts, protest rights, and minorities and plans to replace the Human Rights Act, which the government claims has been “abused”. Concerning asylum seekers across Europe, the EU has become increasingly hostile, contradicting its stated values. However, Britain is going further than the EU by rhetorically exploring a change in standards altogether.

Britain is using its international position to undermine human rights in ways unique to its national identity. The language of “boldness” and “innovation” further evokes Britain's history and national narrative of contributing inventions globally, especially during the Industrial Revolution, and pioneering of free trade economics. Though this past is inseparable from the history of colonial expansionism, exploitation and slavery, Britain’s self-image as an innovative country remains a source of national pride. Meanwhile, Britain takes pride in its historical contributions to human rights, dating back to the 1215 Magna Carta. Britain also played a key role in drafting the 1951 Refugee Convention. This reputation, intertwined with the imagery of innovation under the umbrella of “liberalism”, has established Britain as a global standard-setter on human rights and liberal democracy. Combined with imperialistic confidence, this reputation has bred an entitlement to challenge and recreate international norms.

Given Britain’s complex history, viewing the UK-Rwanda partnership as one between a beacon of freedom and a rights-abusing country is a highly problematic binary. Britain’s exploitation of Rwanda's willingness to accept asylum seekers is colonial in nature. There are also mixed arguments on whether asylum seekers will face a hospitable environment or ongoing challenges in Rwanda. Regardless, the UK has already subjected asylum seekers to hostility, degrading conditions, and rights abuses. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, along with many other Rwandans, is himself a former refugee. Under his leadership, Rwanda has rapidly rebuilt itself following the 1994 genocide, rendering innovation a key element of its modern national identity. Nevertheless, Rwanda has more progress to make on certain human rights issues, including free speech, political liberties and LGBTQI+ rights. Hence, Britain is outsourcing its asylum system to a country that puts certain people at risk.

Photo: Demonstrators outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London [Image credit: Tom Pilgrim/PA/PA Wire]

Critically, the "innovative" outlook both countries are jointly constructing is twofold. While Britain can unburden itself of "illegal immigrants" and tackle the people smugglers who enable the sea crossings, individuals can still seek asylum elsewhere. Hence, this language creates the perception that the scheme protects asylum rights while creating the sense of a fresh start after years of public frustration with the “migrant crisis”. Yet, this frustration has been constructed through years of politicians and media organisations stigmatising asylum seekers. This context has prevented family reunions and led to deaths at sea, diseases in asylum centres, and the neglect and even abduction of asylum-seeking children. Moreover, through stigmatisation and punishment, the government is conflating the people smugglers and traffickers with the victims they claim the Rwanda deal helps. Therefore, the romanticisation of Rwanda as a welcoming destination detracts from the hostility in Britain that resulted in the deal.

Britain’s pioneering of this policy as an esteemed standard-setter on human rights renders the rewriting of international law imaginable. Two principles risk being negated as central tenets of international refugee law. The first is the expectation that an asylum seeker’s country of choice takes responsibility for their claim. The second is the legal principle of non-refoulement, which prevents states from transferring individuals to countries where they risk facing harm. Undermining the former signifies an acceptance in British society that compassion is unnecessary in asylum policy. Breaching the latter renders the objective of an asylum system almost meaningless. Additionally, what may begin as British exceptionalism could embolden other countries to follow Britain’s steps. So far, London’s High Court has ruled that the policy is lawful but that claimants can challenge this decision regarding whether Rwanda is a safe destination.

The London High Court’s ruling also points to a limitation in arguments focusing on the policy’s legality. Laws can be considered social constructs that should ideally reflect a society’s values. It was only after World War II and the Holocaust that countries worldwide agreed to establish international human rights treaties. These were hard-won rights championed by advocates who understood the need for legally enshrined protections that reflected the basic human value of compassion. The High Court’s ruling exemplifies a weakening commitment to refugee rights in the UK legal system. Even if this ruling can be challenged in certain cases, it has already validated the possibility of our standards shifting on human rights. To protect human rights as they were originally conceptualised, British and global citizens alike may need to demonstrate a strong belief in their importance and universality.

Moments where ministers adopt more violent anti-migrant rhetoric expose the hateful politics behind the language of innovation. This hostility has already significantly harmed asylum seekers. For many, such tragic outcomes underline the need not to show more compassion but rather to "overhaul" an abused, overwhelmed, and dysfunctional asylum system. So far, there is no strong majority support for the Rwanda scheme in Britain. Yet, the underlying attitudes the government’s rhetoric manipulates within British society render it as harmful as the Rwanda policy itself. In challenging this policy through bottom-up resistance, citizens may need to go beyond just opposing the Rwanda scheme. They may need to scrutinise the top-down employment of political language that taps into British identity to rebuild faith in human rights norms at a societal level.


Glossary of Terms

  • Asylum Seeker: An asylum seeker is someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status hasn’t been determined legally. Asylum seekers must apply for protection in the country of destination—meaning they must arrive at or cross a border in order to apply. [Source: International Rescue Committee]

  • Dichotomy: A difference between two completely opposing ideas or things. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Exceptionalism: The idea that a person, country, or political system can be allowed to be different from, and perhaps better than, others. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Expansionism: Increasing the amount of land ruled by a country. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Free trade: International buying and selling of goods, without limits on the amount of goods that one country can sell to another, and without special taxes on the goods bought from a foreign country. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Human Trafficking: The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud, or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Men, women, and children of all ages and from all backgrounds can become victims of this crime, which occurs in every region of the world. The traffickers often use violence or fraudulent employment agencies and fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims. [Source: UNODC]

  • Immigrant: An immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there. Immigrants often go through a lengthy vetting process to immigrate to a new country. Many become lawful permanent residents and eventually citizens. [Source: International Rescue Committee]

  • Imperialism: A system in which a country rules other countries, sometimes having used force to get power over them; a situation in which one country has a lot of power or influence over others, especially in political and economic matters. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Liberalism: The political belief that there should be free trade, that people should be allowed more personal freedom, and that changes in society should be made gradually. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Migrant: A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place (within his or her country or across borders), usually for economic reasons such as seasonal work. Similar to immigrants, they were not forced to leave their native countries because of persecution or violence, but rather are seeking better opportunities. [Source: International Rescue Committee]

  • Nationalism: A great or too great love of your own country. Can also be a nation’s wish and attempt to be politically independent. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Non-refoulement: The principle of non-refoulement forms an essential protection under international human rights, refugee, humanitarian, and customary law. It prohibits States from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill treatment or other serious human rights violations. [Source: UNOHCHR]

  • People-smuggling: Involves the facilitation of a person’s illegal entry into a State/country for a financial or other material benefit. Although illegal, refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons in need of international protection are often compelled to use smugglers as their only means to flee persecution, conflict, and violence. [Source: UNHCR]

  • Referendum: A vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Refugee: A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning. They are unable to return home unless and until conditions in their native lands are safe for them again. [Source: International Rescue Committee]

  • Rhetoric: Speech or writing intended to be effective and influence people. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Stigmatize: To treat someone or something unfairly by disapproving of he/she/they or it. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]

  • Xenophobic: Showing extreme dislike or fear of people from foreign countries. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]


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