Keir Starmer says scrapping UK’s Rwanda migrant deportation plan

Previous Conservative government’s policy was ‘never a deterrent’, new PM says, calling it ‘dead and buried’.

Keir Starmer at Number 10 Downing Street
'I'm not prepared to continue with gimmicks that don't act as a deterrent,' says British Prime Minister Keir Starmer [Phil Noble/Reuters]

British Prime Minister Keir Starmer has said he will not continue with the previous Conservative government’s policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, in a move welcomed by rights advocates as long overdue.

“The Rwanda scheme was dead and buried before it started. It’s never been a deterrent,” Starmer told his first news conference on Saturday, after his Labour Party won a landslide in the general election.

“I’m not prepared to continue with gimmicks that don’t act as a deterrent,” he told reporters after a cabinet meeting, describing the plan as a “problem that we are inheriting”.

Parliament approved the contentious law in April, declaring Rwanda a safe third country, which bypassed an earlier UK Supreme Court ruling that said the scheme was unlawful on human rights grounds.

The authorities started detaining asylum seekers in May.

Then-Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who promised to stop migrants and asylum seekers arriving on small boats from mainland Europe, had pushed for the policy.

On July 8, Rwanda said it has taken note of the intention of the UK government to terminate the Migration and Economic Development Partnership Agreement, calling it “a problem of the UK, not Rwanda”.

“Rwanda has fully upheld its side of the agreement, including with regard to finances, and remains committed to finding solutions to the global migration crisis, including providing safety, dignity and opportunity to refugees and migrants who come to our country,” it said in a statement.

Rights activists and critics of Sunak’s government had slammed the plan to deport people to Rwanda rather than handle asylum claims at home as inhumane.

They had raised concerns about the East African country’s own human rights record and said asylum seekers faced the risk of being sent back to countries where they would be in danger.

But when faced with opposition in parliament, Sunak said in April, “No ifs, no buts. These flights are going to Rwanda.”

Tens of thousands of asylum seekers – many fleeing wars and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Asia – have reached Britain in recent years by crossing the English Channel in small boats on risky journeys organised by people-smuggling gangs.

During his Saturday news conference, Starmer said the Rwanda scheme was widely expected to fail.

“Everyone has worked out, particularly the gangs that run this, that the chance of ever going to Rwanda was so slim – less than 1 percent,” he told reporters.

“The chances were of not going, and not being processed, and staying here therefore in paid-for accommodation for a very, very long time.”

Sonya Sceats, chief executive of the group Freedom from Torture, which helps people seeking refuge in the UK, welcomed Starmer’s announcement.

“This is a tremendous victory for campaigners, for refugees, for lawyers, for hundreds and thousands of people across this country who joined the fight against the terribly cruel cash-for-human scheme,” she told Al Jazeera on Saturday.

Agnes Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, earlier in the day had called on the new Labour government to follow through on its campaign promise to scrap the Rwanda pact.

“Our asylum system must be made to focus on delivering as fairly and efficiently as possible the security and certainty to which every refugee is entitled however they may arrive,” Callamard wrote in a social media post.

That, she added, is “just as demanded by our international obligations, the rule of law and basic respect for every human person”.

But Suella Braverman, a Conservative hardliner on immigration who is a possible contender to replace Sunak as party leader, criticised Starmer’s plan.

“Years of hard work, acts of Parliament, millions of pounds been spent on a scheme which had it been delivered properly would have worked,” she said on Saturday. “There are big problems on the horizon which will be, I’m afraid, caused by Keir Starmer.”

With a record number of people coming ashore to the United Kingdom in the first six months of the year, it is also unclear what Starmer will do differently to tackle the migration crisis.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told The Associated Press news agency that the Labour government is going to need to find a solution to the small boats coming across the English Channel.

“It’s going to have to come up with other solutions to deal with that particular problem.”

Freedom for Torture’s Sceats also said that if the government is really serious about tackling the issue of forced migration, global cooperation must be part of the solution.

“We are definitely looking for the new government to rule out the externalisation of refugee policy,” she said.

Meanwhile, reporting from London on Saturday afternoon, Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands said that apart from the Rwanda policy announcement, it remains unclear what Starmer’s Labour government is going to look like.

“There was a lot of talk about change that the government is going to bring to British life and British politics,” said Challands, referring to the news conference.

“His main theme is that the years of Conservative tumult are done,” Challands added. “And for the first time in a long time, the country is going to be treated first by the government in power, rather than the party that it comes from.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies