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The inaugural flight of the UK government scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was stopped in June 2022 at the 11th hour, after an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). (Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

UK sending asylum seekers to Rwanda

April 23, 2024

By Luke McGee, CNN

(CNN) — The UK parliament has finally passed a contentious bill that will allow the government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for their claims to be considered by the East African nation.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s efforts had been stuck between opposition in the Houses of Parliament and challenges in the British courts, as lawmakers and activists have sought to scupper the legislation on human rights grounds.

Sunak celebrated his success on Tuesday morning, saying: “We introduced the Rwanda Bill to deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs who exploit them. The passing of this legislation will allow us to do that and make it very clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay.”

However, the bill’s passage was condemned by activists and the United Nations. Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement: “Protecting refugees requires all countries – not just those neighbouring crisis zones – to uphold their obligations.

“This arrangement seeks to shift responsibility for refugee protection, undermining international cooperation and setting a worrying global precedent.”

Amnesty International UK called the legislation “a stain on this country’s moral reputation” that “takes a hatchet to international legal protections for some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”

Sunak’s inability to implement the policy has caused considerable embarrassment, as the British government has sent millions of pounds to Rwanda to fund a scheme which to date has failed to deliver any results.

It is designed to deter irregular migration into the United Kingdom, particularly people traveling on illegal – and dangerous – small boats from France, arranged by criminal gangs.

The challenge facing the UK was underscored on Tuesday morning when five people were reported dead after attempting to cross from France into England. A small boat with more than 110 passengers “became overcrowded, resulting in several casualties” off the coast of Wimereux, northern France, according to a statement from French officials. At least five people died; three men, one woman and one child, the statement sent to CNN said.

In theory, the legislation will see some landing in the UK sent to Rwanda where their asylum claim will be considered. Planes carrying people to that country are not expected to leave before mid-July. If their claim is accepted, they will stay in Rwanda. If it is declined, the bill says they cannot be deported by Rwanda to anywhere other than the UK, though it is unclear what would ultimately happen in this scenario.

Two years after the scheme was first conceived, the absence of any deportations so far has been considered a major failure for Sunak, who has previously marked out stopping small boats as a key priority.

The Supreme Court of the UK ruled last year that the policy is unlawful “because there are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda.”

Refoulement is the practice where asylum seekers or refugees are forcibly returned to a place where they would face persecution or danger, against important principles of international human rights law.

The judges also found that Rwanda’s asylum system, its poor human rights record, and its previous failure to comply with non-refoulement agreements meant that the British government could not be sure asylum seekers would have their claims considered safely and properly.

They also noted that, as recently as 2021, the UK government criticized Rwanda for “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture.”

The government responded by introducing the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in January of this year, which effectively enshrines in UK law that Rwanda is a safe country, overriding the judges’ concerns.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said in a video posted on X on Monday that “the Safety of Rwanda Bill has passed in Parliament and it will become law within days.”

He added that the act would “prevent people from abusing the law by using false human rights claims to block removals. And it makes clear that the UK Parliament is sovereign, giving the government the power to reject interim blocking measures imposed by European courts,” he added.

Long delays

Even with the bill passed, it is possible that the government will face legal challenges in the European Court of Human Rights, as the UK is still a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights. The European court has previously barred it from sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The bill has suffered long delays because of attempts to amend it. A process colloquially known as “ping pong,” where the two parts of the UK’s parliament – the House of Commons and the House of Lords – send legislation back and forth, has been going on for months. Every time the House of Lords makes amendments to the bill, the House of Commons, where Sunak has a majority, must vote to remove them.

The bill’s passage is not necessarily a major political win for Sunak. Even if the policy stopped all the small boat crossings Sunak says he wants to prevent, it would still barely touch the sides in terms of the UK’s net migration figures. In 2022, the number of people arriving by small boats was 45,744, according to Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. Net migration the same year, according to government figures, was 745,000.

This is a problem for Sunak and his governing Conservative Party, as they are set to face the public in a general election that must be called before the end of this year. Parties on the right – most notably Reform UK, the new political home of arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage – will push the issue of illegal migration as hard as possible.

There is also a danger that Sunak gets dragged into a wider debate around the UK leaving the ECHR, should deportations be blocked by the European court after the bill passes. This issue has already caused deep divisions between different sections of the Conservative Party.

To date, the Rwanda policy has cost the British government £220 million ($274m), and that figure could rise to £600 million after the first 300 people have been sent to East Africa. That leaves Sunak open to criticism from both the left and the right, who can say not only that the policy violates international human rights law, but that it is expensive and ineffective.

The opposition Labour Party, currently expected to win at the next general election, has already said that it will scrap the policy should it come to power.

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