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UK: Big relief for British PM Rishi Sunak as lawmakers vote in favour of controversial Rwanda bill

The House of Commons voted 313-269 to approve the Sunak government's Rwanda migration bill, which is facing opposition from both the left and right. While human rights groups have protested against the bill, far-right Conservatives argue that it doesn't do enough to overcome legal challenges.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: December 13, 2023 10:20 IST
UK MPs gather in the House of Commons to vote on the Rwanda
Image Source : AP UK MPs gather in the House of Commons to vote on the Rwanda bill.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday survived a crucial crunch vote as Conservative lawmakers backed his controversial bill that proposes to send some asylum-seekers to a one-way trip to Rwanda. The proposed Rwanda plan has polarised the UK political landscape, with human rights groups protesting against it and far-right members calling on tougher legislation.

The House of Commons voted 313-269 to approve the Sunak government's Rwanda migration bill, with 38 Conservative MPs declining to take part in the vote, reportedly including recently fired former Home Secretary Suella Braverman and resigned Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick.

Sunak faced the ire of the extreme-right members of his party, who argued that the legislation was not tough enough. Had the motion been defeated, it would have left Sunak's authority in the party shattered and would have made him the first UK PM in nearly 40 years to face a defeat at such an early stage of a government bill.

However, the bill has now been sent for further scrutiny, and a heated journey in the Parliament is anticipated as the government's move to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda is facing opposition from both the left and right. 

Sunak's 'breakfast charm'

Ahead of the vote in the House of Commons, Sunak launched a charm offensive at 10 Downing Street by hosting a breakfast summit for his party rebels on the extreme right of the party, who oppose the bill as they feel it is not strong enough to overcome legal challenges.

More than 40 members on the Tory right continued to discuss how they would vote and many planned to abstain or vote against it. However, Sunak's breakfast charm offensive proved that he still holds enough authority in the power to avoid a defeat on the government bill at such an early stage.

Amidst polarisation within the Conservatives, the opposition Labour Party has accused the Tories of infighting rather than coming up with workable solutions on the issue of illegal migration.

Although Sunak received a respite on Tuesday, anticipated defeat of the proposed bill has caused some restive colleagues to call for a change of leader. Sunak will face a no-confidence vote if 53 lawmakers call for such a motion, as per the party rules.

What is the UK's Rwanda policy?

As per the policy, the UK government seeks to send migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel in boats to Rwanda – where they would stay permanently. Sunak has pledged to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorised migrants to the UK across the English Channel from France.

The plan has already cost the government at least 240 million pounds ($300 million) in payments to Rwanda, which agreed in 2022 to process and settle hundreds of asylum-seekers a year from the UK. The government believes that the policy would deter migrants from making hazardous journeys and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs.

However, the plan has faced multiple legal challenges, and last month Britain's Supreme Court ruled it unlawful, saying Rwanda isn't a safe destination for refugees. Centrist members of the Conservative Party have also rallied against the “toughest anti-immigration law ever” being toughened further to threaten the UK's human rights obligations.

In response, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak's government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.

Human rights groups say it's unworkable and unethical to send asylum-seekers to a country more than 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometres) away, with no hope of ever returning to the UK. They also cite Rwanda's poor human rights record, including allegations of torture and killings of government opponents.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | 'Uncertain, weak': Suella Braverman slams British PM Rishi Sunak after getting fired as Home Secretary

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