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What is UK's Rwanda deportation bill and why is it such a big issue for Rishi Sunak? Explained

The UK's controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has gained widespread criticism, with critics labelling it as "inhumane and cruel". This is a major win for Sunak's "stop the boats" pitch since becoming PM ahead of the upcoming general elections.

Written By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: April 23, 2024 22:48 IST
UK, Rwanda deportation bill, Rishi Sunak
Image Source : REUTERS Migrants arrive in the UK through the English Channel as Britain passed the Rwanda deportation bill.

London: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak got a much-needed win in his troubled tenure as his latest effort to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was finally made into law after approval from the UK Parliament amid much criticism. The House of Lords on Monday (April 22) passed the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, paving the way for the deportation of asylum seekers to the East African country.

The passage of the bill comes from the government's attempts to curb the record immigration levels in the UK and Sunak himself has often asserted the need to stop the inflow of migrants embarking on risky journeys in small boats, fleeing from violence, persecution and instability in their native countries. However, the bill has been widely criticised, with critics labelling it inhumane and cruel.

Hours after the controversial bill was passed, five people including a seven-year-old girl died in an attempt to cross the English Channel from France. The deaths occurred after an overcrowded small boat carrying around 110 people set out to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Several people were rescued, while others apparently did not want to be rescued and left for Britain.

What is the UK's deportation bill for Rwanda?

According to the Safety of Rwanda Bill, which the Sunak government has tried to pass for months now, tens and thousands of asylum seekers will be deported to Rwanda and not allowed to return to Britain. The law designates Rwanda as a safe country and Sunak said that deportation flights will begin in 10-12 weeks. "I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives," the British PM said in a statement after the bill was passed in Parliament.

The highly divisive plan to deport refugees to Rwanda was first proposed by former British PM Boris Johnson after an agreement with the east African nation and the bill at the time proposed that anyone who has arrived in Britain illegally after January 1, 2022, would be deported some 6,000 km away to Rwanda. However, the first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by European judges.

The UK Supreme Court last year upheld a ruling that the legislation was unlawful as Rwanda could not be considered as a safe third country due to its abysmal human rights record, and asylum seekers are likely to face the same perilous conditions they have attempted to flee due to a process called "refoulement" - which means the refugees would be sent back to their home countries.

This ruling at the time was a major blow to Sunak, especially after the sacking of Interior Minister Suella Braverman, whose remit included dealing with immigration. In response to this argument, Sunak's government signed a new treaty with Rwanda that seeks to prevent asylum seekers deported there from being sent anywhere else other than Britain. His latest bill affirms that Rwanda is a safe country but might not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Why is immigration a big deal for the UK?

Several asylum seekers in the UK are fleeing wars and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and they started arriving in Britain in small boats on the English coast in 2018. This slowly broadened into a massive influx of illegal migrants in the country - going as high as over 45,000 in 2022, but dipped to 29,437 in 2023 due to a crackdown. This year alone, over 6,000 migrants have arrived in Britain.

Small boat crossings have become a major political issue in Britain, where they are seen as an indicator of the government's efforts to deal with immigration. Asylum seekers, in their desperation to escape persecution and violence in their native countries, resort to highly risky ways to cross the English Channel, one of the busiest trade routes in the world. The worst incident came in November 2021 when 27 migrants perished when their dinghy capsised near Pas de Calais.

Additionally, smugglers typically overload the boats with migrants, leaving them barely afloat and at risk of being lashed by the waves as they try to reach British shores. After becoming prime minister in late 2022, Sunak made his pledge to "stop the boats" one of his top five priorities. Immigration is also a major factor in the UK's upcoming polls in 2024 or early 2025. 

The Conservative government under Sunak believes that deportation plans will help stop the tide of people entering Britain illegally as it would discourage migrants from making the risky crossings if they know they will be sent on a one-way ticket to Rwanda. Official figures put 2022 annual net migration to Britain at a record of 745,000, and Sunak has set out a series of measures to cut legal migration by 300,000.

It is highly important to note that the United Kingdom is not the only country in the European continent to make drastic changes in its policies to curb immigration. Several European countries like Germany have also tightened their border controls, and Denmark has also signed a similar agreement with Rwanda, though it is yet to send any migrants there.

Why has the deportation plan been criticised?

The UK's plans to deport asylum seekers have been met with widespread criticism, including from human rights organisations to members of Sunak's own party. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has said that asylum seekers must not be "traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing". On the other hand, the far-right members of the Conservative party have criticised the plan for not going far enough with the deportations.

Despite no deportations taking place, Britain has already paid Rwanda more than 200 million pounds ($304 million), and the resettlement of some 300 refugees is expected to cost more than 600 million pounds - an issue that has been raised by the oppostion Labour Party, the favourites to win in the upcoming elections. It also remains unclear how many people Rwanda can take.

After the bill was passed, the UN refugee agency and the Council of Europe on Tuesday called for the UK to rethink its plans because of concerns that the legislation undermines human rights protections and fears that it will damage international cooperation on tackling the global migrant crisis. “The new legislation marks a further step away from the UK's long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement. 

Michael O'Flaherty, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, criticised the legislation for preventing asylum-seekers from asking the courts to intervene when they are threatened with being sent back to the countries they are fleeing. "The United Kingdom government should refrain from removing people under the Rwanda policy and reverse the bill's effective infringement of judicial independence," he said.

What challenges does the law face?

Sunak has announced that deportation flights to Rwanda will begin in 10-12 weeks. While British courts will not be able to consider whether Rwanda is safe, individual cases could still have to be considered in their own right, albeit on very limited grounds. The ECHR could again issue orders to block deportation flights, although the court has amended its rules so that injunctions will only be issued in "exceptional circumstances". 

However, Sunak said his government was prepared to ignore the European Court of Human Rights if it sought to block the deportations. "We are ready, plans are in place, and these flights will go come what may," Sunak said. "No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off." The PM's "stop the boats" pitch is crucial as his party is widely expected to suffer a handsome defeat in the next general elections.

Despite Parliament’s approval of the legislation, further court challenges may still delay the deportation flights, said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London. “I don’t think it is necessarily home and dry. We will see some attempts to block deportations legally.,” he said. Meanwhile, the Dover-based charity Samphire warned that there would be "more deaths" at the Channel after the newly-enacted law

Meanwhile, Rwanda has welcomed the approval of the bill, saying it underscores the work it has done to make Rwanda “safe and secure” since the genocide that ravaged the country 30 years ago. “We are committed to the migration and economic development partnership with the UK and look forward to welcoming those relocated to Rwanda,” government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said.

ALSO READ | Five migrants die while crossing English Channel from France hours after UK passes Rwanda deportation bill


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