It is the 23rd of June 2016. The nation holds its breath; then, one half lets out a hearty cheer, waving pickets with strong proclamations: “Take Back Control” and “We want OUR country back!”; the other half lets out a sigh; or a cry mixed with disbelief, shock, anger, fear, anxiety. An amalgam of emotions grips the United Kingdom on this day, as 52% of voters have sealed the fate of Britain’s future with the European Union by voting for Brexit, a firm stance against globalisation and a collectivised Europe.
For years, Nigel Farage, UKIP, and its far-right political voices lambasted the EU’s allegedly ‘excessive control’ over British [foreign] policy and affairs, citing the reclaiming of Great British sovereignty as a necessity that would only be facilitated through voting to Leave. In particular, a great focus was lent to scrutinising rates of immigration into the UK and a perceived lack of control over the borders, with 1/3rd of Leave voters citing this as their primary voting motivation in Lord Ashcroft’s 2020 poll.
Five Conservative Prime Ministers and four failed Brexit withdrawal agreements later, how has Britain fared in reclaiming its once ‘lost’ sovereignty and control over its borders?
To answer, we need only turn to the migration statistics since the effectuation of Brexit in 2020. In 2021, approximately 28,526 small boats crossed the channel, with this figure skyrocketing in 2022, peaking at approximately 46,000 people crossing the English Channel in boats. As of 15 November 2023, migration levels have fallen by 1/3rd in comparison to 2022, but still much greater than seen in previous years pre-COVID. The vast majority of those crossing the channel are asylum seekers whose applications have not yet been processed or whom the government wishes to redirect to another nation for processing.
Arguably, these levels could have risen as a consequence of Brexit given that, previously, with its membership status in the EU, the United Kingdom benefitted from the Dublin Regulation’s redirection of asylum seekers to newly democratised states, therefore indirectly placing pressure off key EU member states. Given that this system increasingly pushes boundaries of what is a ‘safe’ country in which to seek asylum, core member states can redirect the pressure of major refugee and asylum seeker levels onto new members in the East and South. Britain largely benefited from this systemic rejection of immigrants and outsourcing when removing itself from the EU, given that it then removed itself from this indirect protective barrier from large levels of asylum seekers. Without this extra level of redirection, Britain directly receives a greater number of migrants and asylum seekers in general, as there is no legal alternative pathway.
Therefore, facing pressure to respond to these levels and replace the effect of the EU’s filtration system – especially given the rising disapproval levels towards the government and Brexit voters’ remorse – the Tory party under Boris Johnson signed a memorandum of understanding with the Rwandan government to bring to life the Rwanda Asylum Plan. Proposed in 2022 by then incumbent home secretary Priti Patel, this policy would see illegal immigrants or asylum seekers aiming to enter the UK relocated to Rwanda; a land-locked country in east-central Africa, 6,500km away from the UK; for processing and resettlement, with those successfully claiming asylum in Rwanda no longer being permitted to return to the UK.
Has this proposal been well-received or projected to be a successful endeavour? Not quite.
Certainly, however, one thing has been made remarkably clear: the Conservative government is desperately intent upon continuing to shirk blame for the failings of British foreign policy goals onto the European Union and European institutions, citing the European Court of Human Rights as contrarian to so-called ‘British Values’; despite the ECHR’s rejection of the policy being echoed in a recent judgement call by The Right Honourable Lord Reed of the UK Supreme Court, the highest court in the nation, who equally confirmed that the MoU was unlawful given that Rwanda was found not to be a safe third country to send asylum seekers.
This decision was met with much dissent from the Tory government, which has pushed consistently for constitutional reform post-Brexit to free the executive from accountability or oversight by the judicial, with Dominic Raab notably pushing to weaken the court’s powers through the Judicial Review and Courts Bill in 2022, which would seek to allow the government to ignore rulings that it disagrees with; abolishing the jurisdiction of the High Court to review decisions of (particularly, immigration) tribunals, and altering orders that judges can make against the state.
Hence, all these factors introduce the Great Brexit Irony, in which promises are made, not met, and consequently, goalposts continually get pushed to avert blame and public attention elsewhere. When once the British Government lacked true sovereignty or control over borders because of a despotic European Union, it then lacked true control because of the grips of the ECHR; then, when this narrative failed, it was because of the overzealousness of our domestic judiciary.
In a post-Brexit Britain, the government, and even more broadly, the right wing, continues to cannibalise itself, making promises upon which it cannot follow through while blaming institutions that we are no longer a part of – institutions which once provided the UK with the protection that the Rwanda asylum plan aims to replicate but lack the institutional support to sustain.
Yet, while the British public has overwhelmingly changed their mind on this notorious, fateful referendum, the executive continues to obstinately dig in its heels: and will likely continue to do so, until they are voted out of power.
Ashcroft, Lord. 2016. “How the United Kingdom Voted on Thursday… And Why.” Lordashcroftpolls.com. June 24, 2016. https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/.
BBC News. 2022. “Why Are Asylum Seekers Being Sent to Rwanda and How Many Could Go?” BBC News, June 15, 2022, sec. Explainers. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-61782866.
“Channel-Tracker | Migration Watch UK.” n.d. Www.migrationwatchuk.org. https://www.migrationwatchuk.org/channel-crossings-tracker.
“Dominic Raab’s Judicial Review Plans Are Another Power Grab.” n.d. Tribunemag.co.uk. Accessed December 3, 2023. https://tribunemag.co.uk/2022/01/judicial-review-conservative-party-legislation-dominic-raab-boris-johnson
Goddard, James. 2023. Review of UK-Rwanda Asylum Agreement: Why Is It a Memorandum of Understanding and Not a Treaty? House of Lords Library. UK Parliament. January 26, 2023. https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/uk-rwanda-asylum-agreement-why-is-it-a-memorandum-of-understanding-and-not-a-treaty/.
“UK Supreme Court Flexes Judicial Muscles with Rwanda Ruling.” n.d. Www.ft.com. Accessed December 3, 2023. https://www.ft.com/content/61b7b326-d38c-4e1c-824b-c396c744cda6.
Yeo, Colin. 2021. “It Is Time to Think about Rejoining the EU’s Dublin Asylum System.” Free Movement. November 29, 2021. https://freemovement.org.uk/rejoining-dublin-asylum-system/.