Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes the controversial law will boost the fortunes of his Conservative Party in the upcoming election/Photo: © Crown copyright/Open Government Licence

UK passes law to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda

A controversial United Kingdom government bill to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda finally secured the approval of the upper house of parliament on Monday and has been assented to by King Charles.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who hopes the controversial law will boost the fortunes of his Conservative Party in an election expected to take place later this year, said his government had already chartered commercial jets and vowed to start the first flights to Kigali within months.

Many Britons, particularly those in the demographic groups targeted by the Conservatives, such as older voters, are opposed to greater migration.

The opposition Labour Party has, however, said it would scrap the scheme if it wins the election and work on a deal with the EU.

Curbing immigration was a major factor that led to the 2016 Brexit vote that paved the way for Britain to leave the European Union. Successive Conservative governments had promised to cut net migration to under 100,000 annually before dropping that pledge before an election in 2019.

The UK’s Rwanda Asylum Plan, criticised by United Nations human rights experts and groups supporting asylum-seekers, has been beset by legal challenges ever since it was first proposed in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a way to curb the number of asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats.

Last year, a record 45,775 people were detected arriving without permission in Britain in this way. So far this year, more than 25,000 have arrived on small boats.

Under the scheme, anyone who arrived in Britain illegally face deportation to Rwanda, some 6,400 km away, where their claims would be assessed. Upon arrival in Rwanda, asylum-seekers could either be granted refugee status and permitted to stay, or they might apply to settle on other grounds, or seek asylum in a different “safe third country”.

Critics say Rwanda’s own human rights record are poor and there’s the risk that asylum-seekers may be sent back to their home countries where they would be in danger.

The first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), barring any deportations until the conclusion of legal action in Britain.

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court ruled that deporting asylum-seekers to the East African country would be in violation of international law, which necessitated the government to craft a new bill to address the reasons given by the Supreme Court for rejecting the scheme.

The new legislation obliges British courts to consider Rwanda as a safe third country and it gives powers to lawmakers to ignore parts of international law as well as human rights law. Moreover, it empowers ministers to override emergency orders from the ECHR that could suspend a flight during ongoing legal proceedings.

Rwanda, with a population of around 13.8 million people and which is one of the most-densely populated countries in Africa, will receive financial aid under the scheme. In fact, Kigali is reported to have so far received £240 million (about €280 million) for his participation in the controversial scheme. The UK’s asylum system is said to cost about £3 billion annually.

Denmark has signed a similar agreement with Rwanda, but has yet to send any migrants there. Other European countries, including Austria and Germany, are also looking at agreements to process the claims of asylum-seekers in third countries.

Felix Dappah

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