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8 Mar, 2024 08:43

‘A violation of human rights’: Will the UK government get away with deporting asylum seekers to Africa?

A draft law promoting Rwanda as a safe country for refugees has been deadlocked in Parliament since December
‘A violation of human rights’: Will the UK government get away with deporting asylum seekers to Africa?

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to deport thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda before the UK’s next general election, in a controversial plan that has seen the government accused of flouting international human rights laws.

The scheme has even been ruled illegal by the UK’s highest court, and a bill requiring parliamentary approval before the plan can proceed continues to face strong opposition in the House of Lords and Commons. 

As Sunak and his Conservative government press ahead with the contentious plans, we look at the background to the case and assess what might come next.

For the last 13 years, successive Conservative prime ministers have pledged crackdowns on illegal migration. The UK’s exit from the EU in 2016 was partly motivated by the drive to regain control of British borders.

For Sunak, the issue is part of a larger strategy to address voter concerns about the number of asylum seekers illegally arriving on British shores ahead of a general election, which must be held no later than the end of January, 2025. 

A UK Parliament report published on Friday said the number of people crossing the English Channel in so-called ‘small boats’ has fluctuated since records began in 2018. 

Nearly 30,000 arrivals were recorded in 2023, a decline from 45,756 the previous year. So far this year, more than 2,500 asylum seekers have arrived illegally on Britain’s coast. 

It is these immigrants that the Rwanda scheme is targeting.

In April 2022, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government announced an ‘asylum partnership’ with Rwanda that it claimed would tackle an “imbalance between illegal and legal migration” routes.

Under the initiative, individuals arriving in Britain illegally on or after January 1, 2022, and who do not have the right to remain, will be deported some 4,000 miles (6,400km) away to the East African country.

On Friday, the National Audit Office estimated it would cost over £600 million ($762 million) to deport the first 300 refugees. Britain has already paid Kigali at least £240 million ($305 million) under the deal, which will initially run until 2027.

The plan, hailed by the Home Office as a 'bold initiative', however, has stalled due to numerous legal challenges, with EU courts blocking the first deportation flight in June 2022.

Last November, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda is unsafe for deportees, declaring the asylum policy unlawful. The court argued that anyone sent to the African nation could face detention or expulsion to their home countries.

Responding to the ruling, Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo insisted that her country “is committed to its international obligations” and has been recognized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for its “exemplary treatment of refugees.”

Rwanda has a history of receiving migrants from other countries. In 2013, it was involved in a contentious arrangement with Israel to accept Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers.

Denmark also agreed in 2022 to establish a program to transfer asylum seekers to the African country, but has yet to carry out the plan. There have also been reports that Germany is considering a similar scheme.

Rather than recognize the UK Supreme Court’s decision, the British government decided to legislate around it, and last December introduced the highly controversial Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. 

The draft bill aims to direct judges to ignore sections of the Human Rights Act, as well as any domestic and international laws that classify Rwanda as an unsafe country. It also instructs ministers to disregard orders from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to halt flights to the African state during appeals hearings.

The Home Office has also signed a new legally binding agreement with Kigali, prohibiting it from deporting asylum seekers to a third country where their life or freedom would be threatened.

On the same day the emergency legislation was published, Robert Jenrick resigned as British immigration minister, claiming it did “not go far enough” to deter illegal migrants from entering the UK. Jenrick and fellow hardline Conservative MPs have called for an amendment to override domestic and international laws that oppose the scheme.

In another setback to the government, the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which reviewed the draft bill, last month deemed it unlawful, warning that it “risks untold damage to the UK’s reputation.”

The UN has also declared that the measure violates principles of the rule of law and risks a “serious blow to human rights.”

In December, the House of Commons voted 313 to 269 in favor of the Safety of Rwanda Bill, effectively passing it in its first hearing. But in January, the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber of Parliament – basically asked the government to prove that Rwanda was safe, or not unsafe, for refugees.

This week, the House of Lords voted for several amendments, including removing a clause designating Rwanda as “safe” and another that requires proof that it is a suitable destination for refugees.

Conservative Lord Christopher Tugendhat has claimed that the government will be “behaving like the ruling party in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four” if it fails to amend the bill.

The bill remains deadlocked until an agreement is reached between the Lords and the Commons, and is expected to go through all of its parliamentary stages before the end of March. If approved, Sunak could begin deportations as early as this spring.

In another controversial episode, the UK prime minister last month told TV host Piers Morgan that he is willing to wager £1,000 that the flights to Rwanda will go ahead.

Despite Sunak’s confidence, that seems far from a safe bet.