When I first heard of the scheme to deport refugees to Rwanda, my first thought was – why choose the most densely populated country in Africa? Latest 2019 statistics for Rwanda are a population of 13.26m with a population density of 525/km2 and median age of 20. By comparison, England has a population density of 426, the Netherlands 505, and Bangladesh 1,252. For Africa, only the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius and Mayotte in the Seychelles are more densely populated. South Africa has 62/km2 and Egypt 103/km2.
Population density is a contested measure, as many countries have large areas that are almost uninhabited, while the population is crammed into a few large cities. So another measure is the lived density, measured by calculating the km2 that are lived in.
Population density figures
The figures for Spain:
Spain’s total land area is 505 944/km2 with a population density of 92.67 inhabitants/km2. The proportion of the population living in urban areas is 81 percent. As for the age of the population: the average age is 43.58 years.
So the lived density for Spain is 737 km2. For the Netherlands it is 546, and for England it is 531.
If we look specifically at the South East of England:
“In 2020, there were 9.2M residents in the South East region with an average age of 41.2 years. Population density was 483 residents per square kilometre.”
Of that, the population in Kent is 1,589,100. Why quote these figures? It is to counter the crass argument that because England, Kent specifically, is “full up” we should deport the cross-Channel migrants immediately… to another country that is “full up.”
Rwanda is full up
Rwanda is so full up that its population has been overflowing into Eastern Congo for at least 100 years, pre-dating the crisis of the 1990s. Just ask those who come from Eastern Congo about the tribal and xenophobic tensions there, a cause of the Mai-Mai militias. Rwanda is full up because its population is largely based on subsistence agriculture in rich volcanic soils. When the space for farming runs out, the people cross over into Eastern Congo to grab land for farming there.
England has not experienced settlers coming for land since the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings, so it is hard to imagine what it is like contesting for land when it provides the means to live. But this is also causing wars further north in Africa, on the southern fringes of the Sahara, where pastoralists fight for grazing land which the farmers are fencing off.
Taking the worst jobs
But most refugees coming to the richer countries of Europe are not coming for land: they come for jobs. For jobs, it is better to flee to a country with large cities, so the urbanisation rate of a country is important. The urbanisation rate of England is 82.9 percent of the population living in cities or towns. The rate in Rwanda is 17.43 percent, with 846,000 living in the capital, Kigali. The plan for the deportees is that, after an initial stay in a hotel, they would be able to live and work in Rwanda; in practice this means finding a job in Kigali.
From my observations of refugees in South Africa, life as a refugee is a constant hustle on the streets and for space to live. Refugees are allowed to work in South Africa, but this does not usually mean taking jobs that the locals want. It usually means taking the worst jobs, dangerous jobs as security guards, or jobs in the most polluting factories.
Some entrepreneurs are able to thrive for a while, for instance Cameroonians had some success in craft markets and some open convenience stores, in the worst township sites. But these are all vulnerable to the sporadic xenophobic attacks that burn the stock and threaten life and livelihood. The refugees that can do a bit better, for example becoming teachers, are the English-speaking ones from Zimbabwe with better education. But even those with quite good education from elsewhere will struggle if their English is poor. In Rwanda, refugees would have to struggle with French, although English is now taught in the schools.
Facing hardships out of sight of UK voters
So, seriously, what are the prospects that the UK deportees to Rwanda would settle down and integrate into local life? Rwanda is a young country with a median age of 20 compared to the median age in England of 41. This means there are thousands of young Rwandans also hustling for jobs, with a 19.6 percent youth unemployment rate. The UK rate is 10.8 percent.
The UK Home Office declares the purpose of the deportation scheme is to deter the evil traffickers of people, to break their model. It really says very little about the actual prospects of the refugees once they are in Rwanda: they will then face their hardships out of sight of British news and voters.
Let refugees work
What alternative is there, asks Priti Patel? A hard-nosed look at the British economy just now shows there is an urgent need for jobs in care homes, warehouses, HGV driving, delivery, hospitality, seasonal farm-work. Why not set up an internet application system for those jobs? Currently the Home Office pays out millions in grants to refugees because they are not allowed to work. Saving those millions by allowing refugees to work could cover the cost of such a system.
Indentured labour has a bad reputation among left-wing thinkers because of the dangers of exploitation sliding into modern slavery. But, on the other hand, a reasonable period (two years?) of working in a contracted job, however menial, might be better than risking those flimsy boats on the Channel. If the job-providers have to register (as with the current seasonal workers scheme) presumably exploitation can be curbed. Such planned migration would be better for female refugees (much needed as care-workers) who are currently not daring to risk the boats.
There could also be required access to language learning, which might help to revive the lamentable cuts to what used to be “Section 11” money for teaching English to immigrants.
Relatives in the UK
Priti Patel might respond that such a scheme would be a magnet to migrants. This is true: the numbers of applicants might soon exceed the possible job placements. Those who are unsuccessful might still try their luck in the boats. There are more economic opportunities for migrants in urban areas than can be dreamed up and classified by any national system. Some want to come here because they already have a relative here to latch on to: doing child-care or back kitchen work in some traditional eatery. It is uncertain whether the relative now established here actually wants to take on the burden of the extra cousins. I have more than once heard a response from a once-refugee that is quite antagonistic towards the UK accepting more from his country, the attitude of “don’t take another into the lifeboat” from a lucky survivor.
Not all are victims of torture
I don’t share the current view of the Channel migrants as all victims of torture. Some of them are. And some of them probably have to magnify the story of what they have suffered in order to make their case to stay in the UK. I prefer to think that most of them are primarily economic migrants. They are mostly young, adventurous and eager for a new life, bringing their talents and skills here. The UK needs them as soon as possible in the job market. So let’s save money and let them apply to work. Even if eventually they become too many to let in, at least in the meantime they will help with the job shortages. The traffickers can then swerve into career and travel consultancy, and help with remittances home for employed migrants.
And as for the argument we are “full up”, just make it as easy as possible for Britons who want to live overseas to do so. Thousands of them do, but some are deterred by frozen pensions.