The government is considering housing boat refugees arriving in the United Kingdom on a remote tropical island in the Atlantic Ocean: Ascension. At least until their visa applications in the UK are processed. Those who are granted a visa will fly back. What would happen to those who don’t obtain a visa is unclear. The idea is a variation of a previous plan to fly boat refugees to Rwanda.
Even many advisors to the British government are not enthusiastic. “Futile,” they stated internally last week according to British media. One reason is that the plan is incredibly expensive. It costs over a million euros per boat refugee, former minister Jacob Rees-Mogg stated.
Apart from a military base and a BBC relay station, there is very little on Ascension. There are fewer than a thousand people on the volcanic island just below the equator. The island is 1,600 kilometers west of Angola, almost exactly in the middle of the ocean between the South American and African continents. Nobody lives there permanently. Ascension is primarily known as an important breeding ground for sea turtles.
This means, as Rees-Mogg explained, that everything has to be built there, even temporary housing for the construction workers who will eventually build the migrant accommodations. There are few natural water sources on the island and far away from the inhabited world. It has no local economy, no medical facilities. It is hot and inhospitable.
So, when the plan was first proposed in 2020, it was quickly dismissed. But as the British Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sarah Dines, stated last week, “Times change.”
The crisis in the Channel is urgent. We need to explore all possibilities. And that’s what we’re doing.
It’s all about refugees who attempt the journey from the European mainland to the UK on boats: around 100,000 since 2018, according to the organization Migration Watch UK. Nearly half of them arrived last year: 45,755. However, this is still not a significant number when you consider that the total number of people who came to the UK from abroad in 2022 was 1.2 million.
Stopping the boats at all costs
Stopping the Channel crossing is of symbolic importance. Accidents with flimsy boats often result in the loss of immigrants’ lives. And for many Britons, Brexit was largely about regaining control over their own borders. The most physical British border is the coastline of the island. So, the British government wants to demonstrate at all costs that it can prevent immigrants on boats from arriving there.
They tried to do this last year with a plan to send arriving boat migrants to Rwanda. This was intended to discourage refugees from making another attempt. However, so far, the courts have put a stop to this. There is an ongoing appeal in the Supreme Court, but the British government seems to be looking for alternatives in case they lose the case.
The advantage of Ascension is that it is British overseas territory. Unlike the Rwanda plan, the UK would not be sending the boat migrants who have not yet had their cases processed out of the country, but merely relocating them domestically.
Still, Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, a professor of human rights at the University of Liverpool, is certain that this Plan B will also face legal problems. “Sometimes it seems like the British government launches these kinds of ideas without the intention of actually implementing them,” he writes on The Conversation website. According to him, it seems that they do this “to provoke outrage among political opponents” and to camouflage their lack of real solutions.
Political opportunism, therefore. In this context, Patrick O’Flynn, a Brexiteer and supporter of stricter immigration policies, sees mainly advantages. In The Spectator magazine, he writes, “A center on Ascension would be great for the government in the run-up to the elections: a continuous convoy of illegal immigrants taken to the middle of nowhere, while righteous advocates of open borders scream in indignation.”