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U.K. Parliament approves a plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in London on Monday regarding a treaty between Britain and Rwanda to transfer asylum-seekers to the African country.
Toby Melville
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in London on Monday regarding a treaty between Britain and Rwanda to transfer asylum-seekers to the African country.

Updated April 23, 2024 at 9:49 AM ET

LONDON — The British government's bill to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda has won approval in Parliament, after two years of wrangling over the plan, which has drawn criticism from international human rights groups.

The unelected House of Lords cleared the way for the bill to become law after dropping the last of its suggested amendments early Tuesday, just after midnight local time.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has insisted the legislation will deter people from making the perilous journey across the English Channel, a central part of his "stop the boats" campaign for reelection.

Critics and lawmakers say there's no evidence the plan would work as a deterrent, while United Nations and European officials say it could breach Britain's obligations under international human rights law.

A deadly journey to Britain

Just hours after the legislation passed, French coast guard officials said that at least five people, including a young child, had died attempting to cross the English Channel from France to England. French news reports said the victims were on an inflatable boat that was overloaded with 110 people.

"These tragedies have to stop. I will not accept a status quo which costs so many lives," British Home Secretary James Cleverly wrote on X, formerly Twitter. He said the government is trying to end the human-smuggling trade that puts people's lives at risk.

Prime Minister Sunak said in a statement Tuesday morning, the new legislation is "a fundamental change in the global equation on migration," and insisted that nothing would stand in the way of getting flights to Rwanda off the ground.

King Charles III is expected to give his royal assent officially making the bill into law in the next few days.

The plan is to send some of the people the government says arrive illegally in the U.K. to Rwanda, where local authorities would process their asylum claims.

The U.K. signed a deal with Rwanda in April 2022, in which Rwanda agreed to process and settle asylum-seekers who initially arrive in Britain.

Tens of thousands of migrants attempt to reach the United Kingdom by boat each year. The U.K. government recorded more than 4,600 migrantscrossing the Channel from January to March, surpassing a previous total for that period.

Sunak, who is trailing in the polls ahead of an election expected this fall, is staking his Conservative Party's reelection campaign on this plan, despite several legal challenges from top British and European courts. In one of his latest moves, last year, Sunak introduced "emergency" legislation to write into British law that Rwanda is a safe country, in an attempt to salvage the plan after it was struck down by the U.K. Supreme Court.

No flights deporting migrants have left from London for Rwanda in the two years since the plan was first announced by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In June 2022, a plane was grounded by an eleventh-hour ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, which intervened to stop the deportation of one of the asylum-seekers on the flight.

This provided grounds for the remaining six people on the flight to put forward legal challenges in London courts. Last year, NPR spoke with an asylum-seeker from Iran, who was on that grounded plane.

"They treated us like criminals and murderers. Every knock on the door, I think it's the authorities coming to escort us back to that plane," the man, now living temporarily in a hotel, told NPR.

The plan has drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups and lawmakers from different parties, including some in Sunak's own party, who say it is incompatible with the U.K.'s responsibilities under international human rights law.

"The new legislation marks a further step away from the U.K.'s long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement Tuesday.

Michael O'Flaherty, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, said it "raises major issues about the human rights of asylum-seekers and the rule of law more generally."

Many in the U.K. believe there's no coincidence that Sunak pushed this through Parliament within months of an expected election.

"A lot of this is performative cruelty," says Daniel Merriman, a lawyer who has represented some of the asylum-seekers who were slated to be deported to Rwanda in the past. "The elephant in the room in the upcoming election."

Opinion polls show the British public islargely divided over the idea of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

"On the principle, people are split down the middle really," says Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a nonpartisan think tank that researches public attitudes. "On the question of whether it's going to happen, whether it's going to work and whether it'll be value for money, there's a majority that are very skeptical of this already."

The British government has already paid Rwanda nearly $300 million to take asylum-seekers Britain doesn't want.

While Sunak's Conservatives largely support the transfer to Rwanda, some hard-liners in his party say the latest version of the legislation, which has been rewritten several times, isn't tough enough. Suella Braverman, a former home secretary who spearheaded the Rwanda plan when she was in office, said the latest version was "fatally flawed," with "too many loopholes" that would fail to stop the crossings.

While Sunak may have overcome one hurdle this week, experts say he can expect others.

"His real headaches might be ahead. Now he's got to show whether it works or not," Katwala says.

One challenge may be getting an airline to agree to participate. On Monday, experts from the U.N. human rights office warned aviation authorities against facilitating what it called "unlawful removals" of asylum-seekers to Rwanda, saying they risk violating international human rights laws.

And court challenges could delay the legislation from being implemented, Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told The Associated Press.

"I don't think it is necessarily home and dry," he said. "We will see some attempts to block deportations legally."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab
[Copyright 2024 NPR]