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UK home secretary travels to Rwanda to resurrect asylum plan

December 5, 2023 at 11:48 am

Britain’s Home Secretary James Cleverly signs a guestbook during a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial on December 5, 2023 [BEN BIRCHALL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

UK Home Secretary James Cleverly arrived in Rwanda today to sign a new treaty in an attempt to overcome a court decision to block the government’s controversial policy of sending asylum seekers to the East African country, Reuters has reported. The Rwanda plan is at the centre of the government’s strategy to cut immigration and is being watched closely by other countries considering similar policies.

The UK’s Supreme Court ruled last month that such a move would violate international human rights laws enshrined in domestic legislation. Since that ruling, Britain has been seeking to renegotiate its agreement with Rwanda to include a binding treaty that it would not expel asylum seekers sent there by the UK government, one of the court’s major concerns.

Many lawyers and charities said it was unlikely that deportation flights could start before next year’s General Election in Britain. The opposition Labour Party, which has a double-digit lead in the polls, plans to ditch the Rwanda policy if it wins. Yvette Cooper, Labour’s home affairs spokeswoman, dismissed the government’s latest plans as another “gimmick”.

Cleverly, who arrived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on Tuesday morning, is due to meet with the country’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, to sign the agreement. “Rwanda cares deeply about the rights of refugees, and I look forward to meeting with counterparts to sign this agreement and discuss further how we work together to tackle the global challenge of illegal migration,” said Cleverly.

Under the plan agreed last year, Britain intends to send thousands of asylum seekers who arrive in the country without permission to Rwanda, in an effort to deter migrants crossing the Channel from Europe in small boats. In return, Rwanda has received an initial payment of £140 million ($180m) with the promise of more money to fund the accommodation and care of any deported individuals.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under intense pressure to cut net migration, which hit a record 745,000 last year, with the vast majority entering the country through legal routes. “Stop the boats” is one of five goals Sunak set for his government, to end the flow of asylum seekers who pay people smugglers for their Channel crossings, often in overcrowded boats that are not seaworthy.

The Supreme Court ruled against the Rwanda plan because there was a risk that deported refugees would have their claims wrongly assessed or returned to their country of origin to face persecution. The new treaty is expected to be followed later this week by the publication of legislation declaring Rwanda a so-called safe country, designed to stop legal challenges against the planned deportation flights. However, this is likely to trigger a new round of political and legal challenges.

Sarah Gogan, an immigration lawyer at Harbottle & Lewis, said Rwanda’s human rights record meant the government’s policy would be challenged. “Rwanda is an unsafe country and this is not a quick fix,” she said. “You cannot in a matter of weeks or months reform a country and turn it into one with an impartial judiciary and administrative culture.”

The government is still deciding how to frame the legislation to prevent further legal challenges. Some Conservative members of parliament are pushing the government to include a “notwithstanding” clause that would disapply Britain’s international and domestic human rights obligations in relation to the Rwanda policy.

However, other politicians in the governing party, such as Robert Buckland MP, said that such a move would be “foolish” and would undermine the Good Friday Agreement that largely ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland because the treaty is underpinned by the European Convention on Human Rights.

READ: Will the UK’s migrant deportation plan get off the ground?