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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Alamy Stock Photo
Asylum Seekers

The UK's controversial Rwanda bill has finally passed in parliament - so what happens now?

The deal with Rwanda has been plagued by setbacks since it was signed two years ago.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda Bill is finally set to become law after clearing the UK parliament following weeks of deadlock, paving the way for deportation flights to get off the ground 

The legislation is the latest attempt by the UK government to revive its plan to hand asylum seekers who come to the UK by crossing the Channel a one-way ticket to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

The deal has been plagued by setbacks since it was signed two years ago.

Now the bill has passed in parliament, questions remain over what happens next to put the plan into action. But first, let’s have a quick recap on what has happened so far. 

Why was the bill introduced? 

The deportation scheme, for asylum seekers deemed to have entered the UK “illegally”, was first proposed in 2022 as a way of tackling “small boats” crossings of the Channel from northern France.

So far this year 6,265 people have been picked up trying to make the journey and brought ashore, taking to more than 120,500 the total number of people detected in small boats since 2018.

But the proposal to cut what the UK government says are unsustainable financial pressures from increasing numbers of asylum seekers on public services and accommodation has been beset by legal challenges.

The UK Supreme Court on 15 November upheld a lower court ruling that Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees.

It said there were “substantial grounds” to believe Kigali could forcibly return asylum seekers and refugees to places where they could face persecution.

What happened next?

Sunak promised to introduce emergency legislation to address the concerns of the Supreme Court, and a new treaty legally binding in international law.

Interior minister James Cleverly signed the treaty with Rwanda’s foreign minister Vincent Biruta on 4 December.

london-uk-16th-apr-2024-james-cleverly-home-secretary-at-downing-street-for-the-cabinet-meeting-credit-karl-blackalamy-live-news Home Secretary James Cleverly Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The treaty promised not to return people to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger, and set up a new oversight body to hear individual appeals.

The government published the bill on 7 December.

Some hardline Conservatives were unhappy. Why?

Hardliners in Sunak’s ruling Conservative party wanted the legislation to go even further by overriding the entire UK Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the UN refugee convention and all other international law.

They believed the bill would delay the deportation of asylum seekers by allowing them to challenge their deportation to Rwanda on specific individual grounds if they could prove that it would leave them at real risk of serious harm.

Asylum seekers would then be able to appeal those claims, leading to further delays.

What happened before the bill passed last night? 

The House of Lords had been engaged in an extended tussle over the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, sending it back to the House of Commons five times in a bid to secure changes.

The unelected chamber ended the deadlock after MPs rejected a requirement that Rwanda could not be treated as safe until the secretary of state, having consulted an independent monitoring body, made a statement to parliament to that effect.

The UK government said the Lords amendment was “almost identical” to the previous ones overturned by MPs.

The bill cleared parliament shortly after midnight after the peers backed down. 

What happens next?

The first plane carrying asylum seekers could depart in July, after Sunak acknowledged it could still take 10 to 12 weeks to get flights off the ground.

This would be more than two years since the first flight ever attempted under the deal was grounded amid last-minute legal challenges.

Sunak did not confirm an exact date during a press conference yesterday and it is still unclear whether flights will take place before the next general election.

Ministers and officials had previously repeatedly stressed their intention to get planes off the runway “in the spring” and “as soon as possible” – with Treasury minister Laura Trott even saying there were “many definitions of spring”.

But the latest details indicate Sunak is now set to miss his self-imposed target.

Scheduling flights is likely to take some time due to the steps officials must follow including serving notice on asylum seekers they intend to remove from the UK.

Sunak has said that “nothing will stand in our way” of getting flights to Rwanda off the ground. 

Could there be more delays?

Yes, there is a chance of this happening.

Campaigners opposing the plans, and individual asylum seekers who are told they are to be sent to Rwanda, could seek to take the UK government to court again in a bid to stop flights.

Whether any legal challenges could be successful in the light of the new laws remains to be seen.

Flights will also depend on there being an aircraft available to transport asylum seekers in the wake of difficulties finding an airline willing to charter flights.

But Sunak said an airfield is “on stand-by” and commercial charter planes have been booked “for specific slots”.

According to The Times, Downing Street has drawn up plans to order the Ministry of Defence to repurpose at least one leased aircraft like an RAF Voyager, if required.

Asked whether it was appropriate to use RAF planes, the British Prime Minister told broadcasters: “My priority is to stop the boats.”

Campaigners have called on AirTanker, the company which supplies Voyager to the RAF, not to get involved and claimed tens of thousands of people had written urging the same.

Meanwhile UN experts have raised concerns about the role of airlines and aviation authorities in facilitating the removals.

Will Rwanda flights curb English Channel crossings?

That is unclear. 

It is thought there would need to be significant reduction in crossings on the English Channel for the flights to be officially assessed as succeeding in having their desired deterrent effect.

But Sunak has categorically promised to put an end to crossings altogether with his clear “stop the boats” catchphrase, and has routinely pointed to the Rwanda plan to achieve this, describing it as an “indispensable deterrent.”

Cleverly went a step further, setting himself a target of meeting the Sunak’s pledge by the end of this year – a deadline Downing Street later refused to repeat.

Sunday, 14 April saw the busiest day for Channel crossings so far this year after 534 people were recorded making the journey.

In 2024 to date, 6,265 people have arrived in the UK after making on the crossing – 28% higher than this time last year (4,899) and 7% higher than the 5,828 at this point in 2022.

Earlier today, five people, including a child, died while attempting to cross the English Channel.

Includes reporting by and Press Association © AFP 2024

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