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As voters abandoned his Tories in droves in last week’s local elections over their concerns about post-Brexit economic malaise and the decline of public health, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attempted to rebuild his electoral standing with something completely unrelated to those voter worries: one of the worst political ideas in his country’s long history.

In recent days, Mr. Sunak’s government has begun rounding up a handful of asylum seekers who’ve crossed the English Channel on boats and put them in detention, supposedly in preparation for the “Rwanda scheme,” in which they might be flown in a few months to the troubled Central African country at staggering expense. Officially, it is meant as a scare tactic to deter others from coming to Britain.

As much as we may look aghast at this insane scheme – which has been ruled “unlawful” by Britain’s Supreme Court, provoking Mr. Sunak to pass a bill declaring Rwanda a safe country in contradiction to the court’s ruling – we ought to look closer at its details, for it is founded on fallacies and misunderstandings that underpin many countries’ immigration policies.

Britain does currently have an issue with migrants crossing the Channel in fishing vessels and other small boats, which began when other ways to sneak in were closed off in 2016, and only became serious after Brexit came into effect in 2020. It’s a genuine problem – a humanitarian one. Just a few weeks ago, a family of five, including a child, drowned, the latest in a sequence of migrant deaths.

It is not, however, a migration problem of any seriousness. Last year saw fewer than 30,000 migrants cross the Channel this way – a very manageable number in a country that received 1.2 million migrants in 2023, and had no problem recently settling 174,000 Ukrainian and 25,000 Afghan refugees. The boat migrants are neither a physical nor an economic threat. But there is a genuine need to stop people entering the country in this dangerous way.

The Rwanda scheme will do nothing of the sort. To understand why, you need to know who is crossing the Channel.

The migrants essentially fall into two groups. One is comprised of families and individuals from unliveable places such as Afghanistan (the largest country of origin) or Syria, who have made huge investments in money, time and risk to make a multicountry passage to Europe at great danger. They are obviously not going to be deterred from crossing the Channel because there’s a risk of being shipped to Rwanda; they’ve already spent thousands of dollars crossing many countries and bodies of water, at far greater risk of being murdered, drowned, imprisoned or enslaved.

The other group is made up of single men from safe countries such as Albania and Turkey, who have no valid refugee claim but are willing to take a chance for better jobs and tend to be returned. Those men could easily be deterred from dangerous entries by providing and promoting limited work visas – something Britain needs anyway.

Britain modeled its Rwanda plan after Australia’s “offshore confinement,” in which asylum seekers arriving by sea were literally put on a non-Australian island and held in prison-camp conditions indefinitely. That plan was a failure by any measure: At its most efficient, the scheme cost the Australian government $482,000 per migrant per year in 2016; by 2021, each migrant was costing $3.9-million per year. And it was found to have absolutely no deterrent effect on asylum seekers choosing to come to Australia.

Mr. Sunak’s scheme is faring even worse. Without having managed to deport a single migrant, his government has already paid $412-million to the government of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who has an appalling human-rights record. Britain’s National Audit Office recently estimated that it will cost more than $900-million to deport the first 300 people – more than $3-million per migrant – though it seems unlikely that as many as 300 will ever be deported.

This vast cost, extraordinary inefficiency, policy pointlessness, unnecessary cruelty and general stupidity could all have been avoided if Mr. Sunak just paid attention to the very rational decision-making processes that guide those migrants. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, Channel crossings would all but disappear if it were easily possible to apply for British humanitarian and labour visas and family-reunification admissions en route, in Europe and elsewhere, creating safe legal paths for applicants.

That would increase his country’s refugee intake by a small, manageable margin (and would require some old-style deportations of those rejected), but it would all but end deadly illegal migration and its political consequences, at far lower cost. This would allow a politician to say “I ended this terrible problem” – something no number of flights to the middle of Africa will accomplish.

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