Rwanda refugee policy is like the rendition of slaves in the 1800s

Priti Patel claims that the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is a means to combat criminal gangs involved in people trafficking – a form of modern-day slavery. Yet, unlike African victims of the transatlantic slave trade, the people described as trafficked today actively want to move, and for very good reason.

A better historical comparison is with people who tried to escape from slavery. Like “fugitive slaves”, they move in search of greater freedom. Through this lens, Patel’s Rwanda policy looks more like the forms of rendition facilitated by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act in the US, whereby those who escaped were more readily returned to the condition they had fled.

Had she been present at the time, presumably Patel would not have been disappointed by the Massachusetts court that ruled in 1854 that Anthony Burns, a refugee from slavery, could be forcibly returned to his “owner” in Virginia. Burns had, after all, made an illegal border crossing to escape. But in the words of Henry David Thoreau, Burns’ rendition revealed the state of Massachusetts as “morally covered with volcanic scoriae and cinders”. With perhaps even greater resonance for Britain today, he continued: “If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers … I feel curious to see it.”

Burns’ case became a focal point for political resistance against the Fugitive Slave Act. I hope that political and legal resistance to our government’s abhorrent ambitions prevents anyone from enduring the fate that befell him and countless others in 19th-century America.
Prof Julia O’Connell Davidson
University of Bristol

Boris Johnson has a long tradition of betraying his family. But his government’s attempts to curb “lefty lawyers” making modern slavery claims on behalf of refugees is a particularly pernicious example (Patel seeks to curb modern slavery claims as Rwanda plan labelled ‘government by gimmick’, 15 June).

Johnson’s maternal grandfather, Sir James Fawcett, spent his life’s work as a member of the European commission of human rights enforcing the European convention from 1962 to 1984, and was its president from 1972 to 1981. His grandson is set to dismantle his grandfather’s legacy, merely for a government gimmick. Fawcett must be turning in his grave.
Mark Stephens
Wanstead, London

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