Why has UK’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda been delayed again?

House of Lords deals blow to ruling Conservatives’ ‘stop the boats’ policy.

UK's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a news conference in Downing Street in London, on January 18, 2024 [Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP]

The UK’s House of Lords delivered another blow to the government’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda on Wednesday when it voted to reinsert amendments to a bill which had already been rejected by the House of Commons.

With the support of opposition Labour and cross-bench peers, as well as some rebel Conservatives, including Lord Ken Clarke, a former Conservative chancellor, the UK’s upper house proposed 10 changes to the Safety of Rwanda Bill earlier this month, all of which were rejected by legislators in the Commons on Monday.

However, Wednesday’s decision by the Lords to reinstate at least some of its original changes means that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces a race against time to make good on his commitment to start the process of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda before June.

Why does the UK government want to send asylum seekers to Rwanda?

The government says this scheme is designed to deter “migrants” from attempting to cross the English Channel – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – to reach Britain. Last year, 29,437 people, including many from Afghanistan and Syria, made the Channel crossing in small boats. Most were hoping to claim asylum in the United Kingdom.

Sunak, who became prime minister in October 2022, has made it the mission of his government to put a stop to these arrivals by following through on a Conservative pledge to “stop the boats”. This involves deporting some asylum seekers from the UK to the East African country where their asylum applications would then be processed.

Successful applicants would be granted asylum status and permitted to stay in Rwanda. Options for unsuccessful applicants would include seeking asylum in another “safe third country”. No one seeking asylum in Rwanda would be able to apply for resettlement in the UK.

What is the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill?

This is essentially the government’s latest attempt to push through legislation that will enable it to deport people to Rwanda.

The Rwanda legislation, which was first announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, has been plagued by controversy and delay.

In November last year, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers, effectively scuppering the legislation. This prompted Sunak to introduce his “Safety of Rwanda” bill in December, through which the Commons deemed the African republic safe by majority vote. If approved by the House of Lords, this will, in effect, bypass the ruling of the Supreme Court.

By the end of 2023, the United Kingdom had paid Rwanda 240 million pounds ($304m) as part of its five-year relocation deal, which, according to reports, will cost the UK government at least 370 million pounds ($470m) in total.

But the UK has yet to send anyone to the landlocked state, which was subject to a brutal civil war between 1990 and 1994 culminating in the April to July 1994 Rwandan genocide in which as many as 800,000 minority Tutsis and some moderate Hutus who supported their rights are believed to have been killed.

What are the lords saying about the Bill?

Opponents of the bill in the House of Lords have been scathing in their criticisms.

Lord Alex Carlile, a cross-bench peer, said during Wednesday’s debate in the Lords: “We’re a very long way from being satisfied that Rwanda is a safe country.” He compared the mounting costs of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda to staying at The Ritz in Paris.

Earlier this month, Conservative peer, Lord Tugendhat, compared the UK government’s insistence that Rwanda was a safe country for migrants to the actions of the ruling party in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.

This followed a withering attack at the end of January by Labour’s Lord David Blunkett, a one-time education secretary under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who called the bill “shoddy and less than this country deserves”.

But allies of Sunak’s scheme in the Lords have been all too willing to publicly defend the government.

In early March, Lord Michael Howard, a former leader of the Conservative Party, launched a stinging attack on the Supreme Court’s ruling last November in his defence of the Bill: “In resolving to decide this issue for itself, the Supreme Court was trespassing on the province of the executive and, if there is any breach of the principle of separation of powers in this matter, it is not the Government that is guilty, it is the Supreme Court.”

What amendments did MPs reject earlier in the week?

On Monday, and as a signal of the government’s determination to pass the bill into law in its original form, Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson described the 10 amendments to the Safety of Rwanda Bill which had been proposed by the House of Lords as “wrecking amendments”.

This prompted Conservative members of Parliament, with their 52-seat Commons majority, to vote down each proposed change in its entirety.

One of the most high-profile casualties was the Lords’ proposal to wait until the safeguards contained within the December 2023 UK-Rwanda Treaty, such as Rwanda’s commitment to provide relocated persons with safety, support and legal assistance during all stages of the asylum process, were fully implemented before the country could be deemed safe.

Another Lords amendment would have exempted asylum seekers who had worked in support roles for the British government overseas in places like Afghanistan – such as interpreters – from being sent to Rwanda.

In advance of Monday’s votes, Stephen Kinnock, immigration spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, told Parliament that “it beggars belief that the government would even consider sending this cohort of [Afghan] heroes, who are fleeing the Taliban, to Rwanda”.

What happens next?

The votes by the Lords in favour of the amendments to Sunak’s “Safety of Rwanda” Bill means that the legislation has to return to the Commons in a process known as “ping-pong” where the two parliamentary chambers battle it out until the final wording is agreed.

The House of Commons is due to begin its Easter recess on March 26, so it appears likely that MPs will have to wait until after they return on April 15 to vote on the issue once more.

Whether this gives Sunak enough time to begin his first deportation flights before mid-year – with 150 individuals already identified for the first two flights in May – will depend on which of the UK’s two parliamentary bodies backs down first.

The opposition Labour party has already promised to scrap the Rwanda plans if it comes to power at the next general election, which must be held by January next year but is widely expected to take place later this year.

Source: Al Jazeera