What is the Rwanda Policy? U.K.’s Plan for Asylum Seekers Explained

After a prolonged battle in the courts and in Parliament, Britain’s Conservative government secured passage of legislation on Monday that is intended to allow the country to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The legislation is intended to override a Supreme Court ruling last year that deemed the plan to send asylum seekers to the African nation unlawful. The judges ruled that Rwanda was not a safe country in which refugees could resettle or have their asylum cases heard.

The Rwanda plan, which has become a flagship policy of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a time when his party’s approval ratings have floundered, now seems closer than ever to becoming a reality. But critics say it raises profound questions about the rule of law and the separation of powers in Britain, and could impact thousands of asylum seekers. Rights groups have vowed to fight the plan in the courts.

Here’s what to know.

As the number of asylum seekers arriving across the English Channel rose after a lull during the coronavirus pandemic, the Conservative government pledged to “stop the boats.” Most of those arriving by small, often unseaworthy boats apply for international protection in Britain through the asylum system, and many are later found to be refugees and permitted to settle in Britain.

Through a series of bills and agreements, the government introduced a policy that said that anyone arriving by small boat or any another “irregular means” would never be admissible for asylum in Britain. Instead, they would be detained and sent to Rwanda, where their asylum cases would be heard, and if successful, they would be resettled there.

The government has argued that the Rwanda policy will be a deterrent, stemming the flow of tens of thousands of people who make dangerous crossings from France to Britain each year. This has been questioned by some migration experts who say that the people on small boats already risk their lives to travel to Britain.

Rights groups and legal experts have warned against implementing the policy, saying it contravenes Britain’s legal obligations to refugees under international law and violates the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.

In early 2021, Boris Johnson, then prime minister, began floating plans to send asylum seekers abroad. Taking control of Britain’s borders was a central promise of the 2016 Brexit campaign, championed by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Sunak.

In the summer of 2021, Priti Patel, then the minister responsible for overseeing immigration and asylum, introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, making it a criminal offense to enter the country by irregular means, for instance by boat and without a visa. The bill also gave the authorities more scope to make arrests and remove asylum seekers.

By April 2022, Britain announced a deal with Rwanda to send asylum seekers there in exchange for hundreds of millions in development funding, and the Nationality and Borders Bill became law later that month.

But amid legal challenges and a last-minute interim decision by the European Court of Human Rights, the first planned flight in 2022 was halted. By early 2023, Suella Braverman, the home secretary then, revived the plan with the Illegal Migration Bill.

That legislation, which became law in July 2023, gave her office a duty to remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrived in Britain “illegally” — meaning, without a visa or through other means, like covert arrivals by small boat or truck. (In practice, many of these asylum seekers would not be arriving illegally since genuine refugees have a right to enter and claim international protection.)

The asylum seekers would then be sent to their home country, “or another safe third country, such as Rwanda.” No matter the outcome of their claim, they would have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship in Britain.

These efforts were all challenged in the courts, ending with the Supreme Court ruling that deemed the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda unlawful.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill and a treaty with the African nation earlier this year are intended to override the court’s judgment by declaring Rwanda safe in law, and instructing judges and immigration officials to treat it as such.

Although no asylum seekers have yet been sent to Rwanda, Britain’s independent public spending watchdog last month found that the government will have paid Rwanda £370 million, or around $457 million, by the end of 2024. And costs to implement the policy will rise even further if flights do take off.

For each person eventually sent, Britain has pledged to pay Rwanda an additional £20,000 in development fees, plus £150,874 per person for operational costs. After the first 300 people are sent, Britain will send another £120 million to Rwanda.

Yvette Cooper, the opposition Labour minister responsible for a portfolio that includes migration, on Tuesday called the cost “extortionate” and argued that the money should be put into “boosting our border security instead.”

The policy has faced intense opposition almost since its inception, with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, warning in 2021 that it violated international law.

On Tuesday, Filippo Grandi, the UNHCR commissioner, said the law seeks to “shift responsibility for refugee protection, undermining international cooperation and setting a worrying global precedent.”

Michael O’Flaherty, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for Human Rights, said the bill “raises major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law more generally,” and urged Britain to “refrain from removing people under the policy and reverse the bill’s “effective infringement of judicial independence.”

Mr. Sunak initially promised to deport asylum seekers by the spring, but on Monday he said the first flights would not depart until June or July.

He said the government had put an airfield on standby, booked commercial charter planes, and identified 500 trained escorts who would accompany asylum seekers to Rwanda.

However, legal experts say the plan is deeply flawed, and rights groups have vowed to fight any plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Richard Atkinson, the vice president of the Law Society of England and Wales, a professional association for lawyers, said in a statement on Tuesday that the bill “remains a defective, constitutionally improper piece of legislation.”

On Tuesday, more than 250 British rights organizations wrote to Mr. Sunak vowing to fight the measures in the European and British courts.

Individuals who do receive notices that they will be sent to Rwanda are expected to launch legal challenges against their removal in British courts, and some may also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which could again issue an injunction to halt flights.

Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva.

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