What is the UK’s ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill and why are MPs fighting over it?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pushes the bill through the House of Commons but not without much squabbling.

Prime minister, Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak succeeded in getting his 'Safety of Rwanda' bill passed in its third reading in the House of Commons [Stefan Rousseau/Pool via Reuters]

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has succeeded in pushing his asylum and immigration bill through the House of Commons after an expected rebellion by Conservative Party MPs came to nothing.

Some MPs from Sunak’s own party had threatened to vote against the “Safety of Rwanda” deportation bill on the grounds that government plans to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda were not robust enough to survive legal challenges.

But in the end, only 11 hardline Conservatives rebelled and the legislation passed on Wednesday evening by a 320-276 vote.

What is the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill?

Sunak has made his anti-immigration “Stop the Boats” campaign central to his government’s legislative programme as he seeks to deter asylum seekers from trying to reach the United Kingdom across the English Channel.

But the Rwanda deportation bill, which seeks to deport refugees and migrants to Rwanda to have their asylum claims heard and for resettlement, has been anything but plain sailing.

In November, the Supreme Court struck down Sunak’s original Rwanda bill after it ruled that the landlocked African republic was not a safe country for asylum seekers, prompting the Conservative Party leader to introduce his so-called Safety of Rwanda bill.

This new bill was intended to make it harder for the courts to challenge his legislation by asking the House of Commons to declare by majority vote that Rwanda is indeed a safe country for asylum seekers.

Sunak presented his Safety of Rwanda bill to parliament in December but had to contend with hard-right MPs from his own party who asserted that the bill was still not “sufficiently watertight”. In the end, the Conservative Party leader secured a comfortable majority in favour of his bill after rebels, many of whom abstained, decided to let the legislation pass in the hope of holding Sunak’s feet to the fire at the final stage.

How long has the government’s Rwanda policy been in the pipeline?

The Rwanda legislation was first announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022.

Two months later, on June 14, 2022, the first Rwanda-bound flight from Britain was due to depart with asylum seekers on board. It was halted after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which decreed that one of the asylum seekers, a man from Iraq, was at “real risk of irreversible harm” should he end up in the East African nation.

Legal battles over the government’s policy ensued. The issue came to a head when the Supreme Court made its ruling two months ago, but Sunak has nevertheless managed to drag his party kicking and screaming to Wednesday’s final vote.

1st Rwanda flight
Members of staff board the first plane due to transport asylum seekers to Rwanda at MOD Boscombe Down base in Wiltshire, UK, on June 14, 2022, before the flight was halted by a court order [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

What happened to the expected Conservative rebellion?

Rebel Conservatives, including MP Robert Jenrick, who resigned his role as immigration minister in December after accusing Sunak of presiding over defective legislation, tried to make changes to the Safety of Rwanda bill ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

This included a Jenrick-drafted amendment designed to stop 11th-hour injunctions from the ECHR against deportations. But this was voted down easily.

“In the end, the hardcore rebels – those who wanted both to toughen the bill and to use it to force a change of leader – just didn’t have the numbers that might have persuaded their other rather less zealous colleagues to join them,” Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera. “They shot and missed.”

Analysts said most rebel Conservatives were forced to accept that it was better to have some kind of legislation than to have no legislation at all.

Among the 11 Conservative MPs to vote against the government were Jenrick and former UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose hard-right credentials have led her to become something of a hate figure for leftists.

After the vote, Braverman wrote on X: “The Rwanda Bill will not stop the boats. It leaves us exposed to litigation & the Strasbourg Court. I engaged with the government to fix it but no changes were made. I could not vote for yet another law destined to fail. The British people deserve honesty & so I voted against.” The ECHR is in Strasbourg, France.

What happens next?

The bill will now move on to Britain’s second chamber, the House of Lords, which will debate and vote on the legislation. The Lords, Bale said, “could still stymie or at least delay the bill”, so Sunak is far from home and dry.

Indeed, Bale said that Wednesday’s success could turn out to be little more than a pyrrhic victory for the prime minister, who, according to opinion polls, is heading for an electoral wipeout in the next general election, which is likely to be held in the second half of this year and must be held no later than January 28, 2025.

“Sunak has won a victory of sorts – but possibly only a temporary one,” the British academic said. “And he’s not come away completely unscathed: The divisions within the Conservative Party have been laid bare and his authority seriously questioned yet again.”

Source: Al Jazeera