UK passes Rwanda deportation bill

Britain's Conservative government finally won approval for its flagship immigration policy on Monday, enshrining a deportation bill to Rwanda that human rights activists say is inhumane, immigration experts say unworkable and legal critics say it has corroded the country's reputation in terms of the rule of law.

The legislation is designed to allow the government to put some asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, where their claims will be processed by authorities in that central African country. If they were then granted refugee status, they would be resettled in Rwanda, not Britain.

From the moment the plan was first introduced in 2022, under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, experts said it would breach Britain's human rights obligations under national and international law.

Even after the passage of the new bill, which has faced strong opposition in the House of Lords and effectively overturns a ruling by the British Supreme Court, any deportation attempt will likely face a barrage of further legal challenges, making it unlikely that a large number of asylum seekers will never be sent to Rwanda.

Yet the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, insisted on Monday that the government would operate more charter flights every month, starting every 10-12 weeks. “These flights will go, come what may,” an exuberant Sunak said, hours before the final vote. “This is new,” he said of the policy. “It's innovative, but it's going to be a game changer.”

The plan's tortured journey to law speaks mostly to the state of politics in post-Brexit Britain: a divided Conservative Party, desperate to exploit anxiety over immigration to close an electoral gap with the opposition Labor Party, he has clung to politics for two years despite legal snags and deep doubts about his spending and viability.

While it is conceivable that the government could get some flights off the ground before the general election due in the autumn, it would only do so at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds and, critics say, a stain on the country's reputation as a bastion of international and human rights laws.

“It pushes every button: the limits of executive power, the role of the House of Lords, the courts, the conflict between national law and international law,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, a research institute. “With this policy you are playing bingo on constitutional constraints.”

Not only did the plan bring Sunak into conflict with civil servants, opposition politicians and international courts, it led to the government prevailing in the Supreme Court – in the process, critics say, effectively making up its own facts.

The new legislation enacts into law that Rwanda is “a safe country” for refugees, defying the court's finding, based on substantial evidence, that it is not. The legislation requires judges and immigration officials to “definitely treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country” and gives the government the power to ignore future rulings from international courts. There are no provisions to change it if conditions in Rwanda change.

While the African nation has made political and social strides in recent decades, even the most sympathetic observers point out that it was rocked by genocide during civil war in 1994 and is now ruled by an increasingly authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame. Anyone who publicly challenges him risks arrest, torture or death.

“You can't make a country safe just by saying it's safe,” said David Anderson, a lawyer and member of the House of Lords who is unaffiliated with any party and who opposed the law. “This is absolutely absurd.”

Given all these responsibilities, the surprise is that Sunak has embraced the plan as a means of fulfilling his promise to “stop the boats”. British newspapers reported that he had been skeptical about this when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Johnson.

Political analysts say Sunak's decision reflects pressure from the right of his party, where support for sending refugees to Rwanda is strong. But he spent considerable political capital on the long campaign to pass the legislation and missed his self-imposed deadline to begin flights by spring. The often bitter debate has exposed rifts among conservative lawmakers, with moderates warning that the bill went too far while hardliners complained that it didn't go far enough.

In the final act of this legislative drama, the House of Commons and its unelected counterpart, the House of Lords, kicked the legislation back and forth, as the Lords tried unsuccessfully to attach amendments to it, including one that would an independent monitoring group is required. to verify that Rwanda was safe. The Lords capitulated on the last of these amendments on Monday.

This paved the way for the House of Commons to pass the legislation, known as the Rwanda Security Bill. The government said it addressed the Supreme Court's concerns through a treaty with Rwandans last December. But critics say the British government has still failed to ensure that refugees cannot one day be returned to their home countries, where they could face potential violence or mistreatment.

That Johnson supported the plan was less surprising, given his bombastic, freewheeling style, which upended the cautious, evidence-based tradition of British decision-making. It was also a legacy of Brexit, which Johnson had campaigned for when he promised in 2016 to “take back control” of the country's borders.

“Every time a little boat bounces and you can't get rid of people, it's symbolic of the fact that you haven't really regained control,” said Rutter, who called the policy a “love child of Brexit.”

Before Brexit, Britain had collaborated with France to almost eliminate the flow of people crossing the Channel by clandestinely loading themselves onto lorries. But Johnson's relations with French President Emmanuel Macron were frosty and, after leaving the European Union, Britain had fewer levers with which to pressure Paris.

At times, the British government's desperation to stem the flow of barely seaworthy vessels seemed almost comical, as when reports emerged that it was considering pushing them back with giant wave machines.

The European Court of Human Rights could still intervene to block deportation flights to Rwanda. And the Labor Party has promised to repeal the law if it comes to power. With the party far ahead in the polls, the policy may end up being remembered more as a political talking point than a practical effort to curb dangerous crossings.

Even if the Labor Party mothballs the plan, it could backfire on the party once in government, analysts say. Another law introduced last year bars those who arrived after March 2023 from applying for asylum, leaving them in limbo.

“Labor could be in a really difficult situation because you have these 40,000 people being put up in hotels at huge expense to taxpayers,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King's College London. “It's not at all clear what you can do with them.”

The debate over Rwanda, he said, reflects a broader problem for Western countries in controlling migration. Other European governments are exploring the idea of ​​processing asylum claims offshore, but have failed to say that those granted refugee status should remain in those nations.

“It is difficult to argue whether the conventions signed in the aftermath of the Second World War are still fit for purpose,” said Professor Menon, referring to the legal protection of refugees. “The problem is that Western countries want to present themselves as kind, generous and humanitarian – and they want to keep people out.”

However, even if Britain managed to send some people to Rwanda, it seems unlikely that the policy would ever be judged a success.

“The situation has become so dirty now that most countries see it as a huge reputational risk,” Professor Menon said, pointing out that Rwanda's national airline had also reportedly rejected a British invitation to operate the flights. “It's not a good look.”

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