U.K. Pushes Through Rwanda Deportation Bill

Britain’s Conservative government finally won passage of its flagship immigration policy on Monday, enshrining a Rwanda deportation bill that human-rights campaigners say is inhumane, immigration experts say is unworkable and legal critics say has corroded the country’s reputation for rule of law.

The legislation is designed to allow the government to put some asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, where they would have their claims processed by the 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 domestic and international law.

Even after the passage of the new bill, which came under heavy opposition in the House of Lords and effectively overrides a ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court, any deportation attempts are likely to encounter a flurry of further legal challenges, making it unlikely that large numbers of asylum seekers will ever be sent to Rwanda.

Yet the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, insisted on Monday that the government would operate multiple charter flights every month, starting in 10 to 12 weeks. “These flights will go, come what may,” a feisty Mr. Sunak said, hours before the final vote. “This is novel,” he said of the policy. “It is innovative, but it will be a game changer.”

The plan’s tortured journey into law speaks mostly to the state of politics in post-Brexit Britain: a divided Conservative Party, desperate to exploit anxiety about immigration to close a polling gap with the opposition Labour Party, has clung to the policy for two years despite legal setbacks and deep doubts about its expense and viability.

While it is conceivable that the government could get some flights off the ground before a general election expected in the fall, it would have only done so at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds and, critics say, a blot on the country’s reputation as a bulwark 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 domestic and international law,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute. “You are playing constitutional-constraints bingo with this policy.”

Not only did the plan bring Mr. Sunak into conflict with civil servants, opposition politicians and international courts, it led the government to overrule the Supreme Court — in the process, critics said, effectively inventing its own facts.

The new legislation writes into law that Rwanda is “a safe country” for refugees, defying the court’s judgment, based on substantial evidence, that it is not. The legislation instructs judges and immigration officials to “conclusively treat the Republic of Rwanda as a safe country,” and gives the government the power to disregard future rulings by international courts. There are no provisions to amend it if conditions in Rwanda change.

While the African nation has made strides politically and socially in recent decades, even sympathetic observers point out that it was convulsed by genocide during a civil war in 1994 and is now ruled by an increasingly authoritarian leader, Paul Kagame. Those who publicly challenge him risk arrest, torture or death.

“You can’t make a country safe just by saying it’s safe,” said David Anderson, a barrister and member of the House of Lords who is not affiliated with any party and who opposed the law. “That is absolutely absurd.”

Given all these liabilities, the surprise is that Mr. Sunak embraced the plan as the means to fulfill his promise to “stop the boats.” British newspapers reported he had been skeptical of it when he was chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Johnson.

Political analysts said Mr. Sunak’s decision reflected pressure from the right of his party, where support for sending refugees to Rwanda is strong. But he spent significant political capital in the long campaign to pass the legislation and missed his self-imposed deadline of starting the flights by spring. The often bitter debate exposed rifts between Tory lawmakers, with moderates warning that the bill went too far while hard-liners complained that it did not go far enough.

In the latest 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 require an independent monitoring group to verify Rwanda was safe. On Monday, the Lords capitulated on the last of those amendments.

That cleared the way for the Commons to pass the legislation, known as the Safety of Rwanda Bill. The government said it addressed the Supreme Court’s concerns through a treaty with the Rwandans last December. But critics said the British government had still failed to guarantee that refugees could not someday be returned to their countries of origin, where they might suffer potential violence or ill-treatment.

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

“Every time a small boat bounces in and you can’t get rid of the people, it is symbolic of the fact that you haven’t really taken back control,” said Ms. Rutter, who labeled the policy an “illegitimate child of Brexit.”

Before Brexit, Britain cooperated with France in nearly eliminating the flow of those who crossed the English Channel by stowing away on trucks. But Mr. Johnson’s relations with President Emmanuel Macron of France were icy — and, after leaving the European Union, Britain had fewer levers with which to pressure Paris.

At times, the British government’s desperation to curb the stream of barely seaworthy vessels seemed almost comical, such as when reports emerged that it was considering trying to repel them with giant wave machines.

The European Court of Human Rights could yet move to block the deportation flights to Rwanda. And the Labour Party has vowed to scrap the law if it comes into power. With the party far ahead in the polls, the policy may end up being remembered more as a political talking point than as a practical effort to curb the perilous crossings.

Even if Labour mothballs the plan, it could come back to haunt the party once in government, analysts said. Another law introduced last year bars those who arrived after March 2023 from claiming asylum, leaving them in limbo.

“Labour could find itself in a really tricky situation because you have these 40,000 people who are being housed in hotels at tremendous expense to the taxpayer,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at King’s College London. “It’s not at all clear what you can do with them.”

The Rwanda debate, he said, reflected a broader problem for Western countries in controlling migration. Other European governments are examining the idea of processing asylum requests offshore, while not going as far as declaring that those granted refugee status should stay in those nations.

“There is a difficult discussion to be had as to whether the conventions signed in the aftermath of the Second World War are still fit for purpose,” Professor Menon said, referring to the legal protections for refugees. “The problem is that Western countries want to portray themselves as kind, generous and humanitarian — and to keep people out.”

Still, even if Britain manages to send some people to Rwanda, it seems unlikely that the policy will ever be judged a success.

“This has become so sullied now that most countries are seeing this as a massive reputational risk,” Professor Menon said, noting that even Rwanda’s flag carrier reportedly declined a British invitation to operate the flights. “It’s not a good look.”

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