The Rwanda policy is one year old – but the public still aren’t sold

  • Insight
  • 14 April 2023

Editorial from UK Director Luke Tryl, on More in Common's recent polling on refugee policy, as first published in Times Red Box


As with so many controversial policies, there’s a tendency to assume that public opinion on the government’s approach to small boat crossings splits into stark pro and anti camps. But one year on from the pledge to deport migrants who cross the Channel to Rwanda, our polling finds the public’s views are more nuanced than some politicians suggest.

There is no doubt that many want to see the government take action to stop migrants crossing the Channel. Britons rank it among the top issues facing the country — and it is even more important for the group we call Loyal Nationals — a segment of socially conservative voters who swung behind the Conservatives in 2019 to deliver victory in red wall seats. In numerous focus group conversations over the last few months, it is clear this concern is not because the public is anti-refugee or racist, as some suggest, but because they view channel crossings as unfair — favouring those with the physical and material means, empowering traffickers, and crucially removing our ability to control who gets into the country.

That desire for control drives public support for the Rwanda policy with 46 per cent backing the government’s plans, 27 per cent opposing and the rest saying they don’t know. But this is where a simplistic picture of support for the policy ends.

For starters, despite the public being more likely than not to support the policy, in no public poll has support reached a majority. Further, when asked whether they think the policy will work to deter crossings the public is far more likely to say that it won’t (51 per cent) than will (34 per cent). This poses a risk to the Conservatives of raising the salience of a problem that the public doesn’t think they will fix — potentially driving their voters to populist parties such as Reform UK.

But there’s another risk that the government’s proposals are seen as too harsh to those in genuine need. Under the plans, no-one who crosses the Channel illegally will be able to stay in Britain — even if they are found to have a genuine asylum claim. Here public opinion and the government part ways. Our polling finds that the public wants exemptions from the no asylum rule for many of those who might cross the Channel — including genuine refugees, women fleeing persecution, children, victims of modern slavery, those who’ve supported us in Afghanistan and those fleeing civil war and conflict. Across the groups we tested, there were only two groups that the public felt should not be granted an exemption — LGBT people fleeing countries where it is illegal to be gay and by a larger margin economic migrants.

Herein lies the problem. While measures to tackle migration from Albanians coming to the UK largely for economic reasons might be popular, the Rwanda scheme (as designed) would deport refugees that a majority of the British public think should be allowed to claim asylum here. It’s not hard to imagine, if planes ever get off the ground, that there will be a series of high-profile deportations where the government finds itself on the wrong side of popular opinion.

This strikes at the fundamental nuance when it comes to where the average Briton stands on refugee policy — they want an approach that is guided by both compassion and control — that allows us to take in those in need of sanctuary and to properly have a grip on who and how many people come in. The problem with the government’s Rwanda plan is that, as it stands, the public thinks that it manages neither.

Luke Tryl is UK director of More in Common