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What is the UK’s Rwanda migrant deportation plan?

April 15, 2024 at 10:29 am

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against the British Government’s latest plan to deport immigrants to Rwanda, outside the Home Office in central London on December 18, 2023. [ HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images]

Britain’s Parliament is set to pass legislation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes will pave the way for the Government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda if they arrive in Britain without permission.

Last November, the UK Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful, but Sunak says the new law overrides any legal concerns and will thus fulfil his pledge to stop people arriving across the Channel in small boats.

Why is immigration such an issue in Britain?

Taking back control of Britain’s borders and ending the free movement of people into the country was a significant factor in the 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Polls show that it remains one of the most central issues for voters.

Official figures put 2022 annual net migration to the UK at a record of 745,000, and Sunak has set out a series of measures to cut legal migration by 300,000.

Sunak has also promised to stop people making the dangerous journey of about 20 miles (32 kilometres) across the Channel in small boats. More than 29,000 people arrived this way last year after a record 45,775 migrants arrived in 2022. So far this year (until 10 April), more than 5,500 people have been detected, a rate similar to 2022.

What is Britain’s Rwanda plan?

The scheme, which was agreed upon in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sends anyone who arrived in Britain illegally after 1 January, 2022, to Rwanda, some 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometres) away.

However, the first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by European judges. The UK Supreme Court then upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands or to other countries where they would be at risk of mistreatment.

Despite no deportations, Britain has already paid Rwanda more than £200 million ($304 million), and resettling some 300 refugees could cost more than £600 million ($748.83 million). It also remains unclear how many people Rwanda can accommodate.

Read: Rwanda plan ‘fundamentally incompatible’ with UK’s human rights obligations

Why is the Rwanda policy so important to Sunak?

After becoming prime minister in 2022, Sunak pledged to “stop the boats” as one of his top five priorities.

Britain is currently spending more than £3 billion ($3.74 billion) a year processing asylum applications, with the cost of housing migrants awaiting a decision in hotels and other accommodations running at about £8 million ($9.98 million) per day.

Figures show that about 100,000 asylum applications remain to be decided.

A general view of the High Court building after the court rules the government's plan to send irregular migrants who entered the country illegally to Rwanda is "not in accordance with the law", in London, United Kingdom on November 15, 2023. [Raşid Necati Aslım - Anadolu Agency]

A general view of the High Court building after the court rules the government’s plan to send irregular migrants who entered the country illegally to Rwanda is “not in accordance with the law”, in London, United Kingdom on November 15, 2023. [Raşid Necati Aslım – Anadolu Agency]

What is Sunak’s ‘Safety of Rwanda’ law?

To address the issues raised by the Supreme Court, Sunak agreed to a new treaty with Rwanda to prevent asylum seekers deported there from being sent elsewhere other than to Britain.

His proposed bill, which the Government stated might not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, affirms that Rwanda is a safe country.

It disapplies some sections of Britain’s Human Rights Act and says ministers alone would decide whether to comply with any injunction from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

However, the law has provoked widespread criticism from members of Sunak’s own Conservative Party to the United Nations human rights chief. Once passed, Sunak confirmed flights to Rwanda would begin by the middle of the year.

Read: UK Rwanda asylum plan raises deep concerns, says UN rights chief

Will Rwandan deportation flights take off?

For some in Sunak’s party, the new law did not go far enough in preventing asylum seekers from being able to appeal against their deportation.

The legislation means that while UK 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 minimal 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”. Its president has said Britain had a legal obligation to comply with its rulings.

Unions have stated that ministers would need Parliament to change the civil service code if they want the Government’s staff to ignore ECHR rulings if instructed by ministers. Otherwise, they warn that they may take legal action themselves.

How does Britain compare with other countries?

Many European nations, such as Germany, have tightened their border controls to address immigration concerns, while European lawmakers approved a revamped migration system last week to reduce unwanted immigration.

Denmark has also signed a similar agreement with Rwanda but has yet to send any migrants there, and Italy has announced plans to build reception centres in Albania.

Israel scrapped a similar deal with Rwanda after five years, with the Israeli Supreme Court declaring it unlawful because Rwanda had not complied with assurances it had given.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.