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Children are at risk under government plans for deportations to Rwanda, Bishop tells Lords

20 February 2024

Consequences for their well-being will be ‘devastating’ she says

Parliament TV

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, addresses the House of Lords on Monday night

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, addresses the House of Lords on Monday night

VULNERABLE children are being left unprotected under Government plans to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, and the consequences for their well-being will be “devastating”, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, has warned.

“Good intent is no basis for safeguarding,” she said, referring to the treaty struck between the UK and Rwanda, on which the Government is relying as evidence of the country’s safety despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary (News, 17 November 2023).

Dr Francis-Dehqani was contributing to the third day of the Committee Stage of the Government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill in the House of Lords on Monday afternoon. She spoke in support of amendments tabled by the Labour peer Baroness Lister, who had expressed concern about the lack of a child-rights impact assessment of the Bill. Her amendments, Baroness Lister said, would ensure that the “best interests” for every child were met in line with the Illegal Migration Act.

The Bishop said: “We should never forget that both accompanied and unaccompanied children, and those who may well be found to be children, are in the scope of the Bill, which the Government cannot confirm is compatible with convention rights under the ECHR.”

The treaty, the Bishop said, “excludes unaccompanied children from the partnership agreement, while acknowledging that they may be sent to Rwanda erroneously. This contradiction means that the treaty . . . provides only vague information about Rwanda’s plans to safeguard children, a group surely more vulnerable than any other we could possibly imagine.”

She continued: “It is not my place to doubt the sincerity of the Rwandan authorities’ commitment to providing child-suitable safeguards, but good intent is no basis for safeguarding, and sending children before the treaty is fully implemented would be a dereliction of our duty to them. This, combined with leaving a potential child with no suspensive legal redress against their removal, is simply unconscionable.”

The treaty had identified the risk of sending a child to Rwanda in error, but no mitigation had been included in the Bill, she said. “Has it been decided that the risk is tolerable, regardless of all the anguish and trauma it would cause to a child?”

Dr Francis-Dehqani also agreed with concerns about age assessments. “Under the Bill, the repercussions of inaccurate age assessments are disastrous,” she said. “Even if a child were to be returned to the UK after they were verified to be a minor, the impact would be devastating for their physical and mental well-being, and it would likely leave an imprint on them for the remainder of their life.”

She concluded: “I do not believe that children seeking safety in the UK should face removal to Rwanda. But, at the absolute minimum, the process should ensure that their welfare and best interests are considered, and maintaining a role for the panel would help facilitate this.”

Responding, Lord Sharpe said that the amendment would “undo Parliament’s previously agreed position in relation to the removal of families to Rwanda”, and assured peers that “the welfare of a family will continue to be at the forefront of decisions to detain and remove them, regardless of the proposed destination.”

Without his support, Baroness Lister withdrew her first amendment, and the rest in the group were therefore withdrawn. She warned, however, that the questions being raised in the debate had not been answered adequately, or at all, by the Government, and that “There is no real attempt to engage with what we have said. I am sure that we will come back to this.”

Earlier in the debate, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, spoke on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury in favour of a group of amendments which would prevent asylum-seekers from being deported to Rwanda while their claims were pending.

“We have seen the multiple difficulties faced by the Government in sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda,” he said. “Bearing that in mind, is it really plausible that, having sent an asylum-seeker to Rwanda, the Government will then be able to return them to the UK on the basis of evidence that should have been considered while their case was reviewed here? This seems neither efficient nor plausible.”

Also supporting the amendments, the Conservative peer Lord Deben said that every person should be treated equally. “There is a deeply important religious, as well as secular, truth. Once you distinguish in the rights between people, you say about people as a whole that they are not each worth something. It is fundamental, and inconvenience is no excuse.”

Debate on this group of amendments continued later on Monday night. Addressing the Bill’s incompatibility with the ECHR, Dr Warner said: “It is profoundly disturbing when, on the face of this Bill, we do not find assurance of compliance with European and UN approaches to human rights or an adequate mechanism for addressing our own processes of law and the risk of serious harm.

“This is about principles, values, and rules to which we should aspire as the foundation of human dignity in an enlightened and humane society.”

The amendments were not moved.

Before the session ended, Dr Francis-Dehqani moved an amendment which would, she said, “insert a sunset provision for the Bill to expire two years after commencement, unless Parliament decides that it should remain in force and the Government has produced a report containing evidence that the Rwandan government is fulfilling its Rwanda Treaty obligations.”

The main issue which the Government had not addressed was that “we are being asked to make a permanent judgment on the safety of Rwanda on the basis of the yet to be implemented arrangements outlined in the treaty. This is, of course, against the opinion of our highest court.”

It was not “rational” to argue that Rwanda is safe at present when the country was said to be “moving towards having the required protections in place”.

Lord Epsom said that the Government did not think the amendment “necessary”. Without his support, Dr Francis-Dehqani withdrew it.

 

THE second day of the Committee stage took place late last week. During this debate, the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, said that the protections of the Bill should not allow people who were already victims of human trafficking to be removed to Rwanda “at least before a conclusive decision is made on their case or without assessing what it means for their safety. Such consideration for victims is the least that we can do.”

She explained: “Since the start of 2022, more than 4000 people who arrived on small boats have entered the national referral mechanism for modern slavery. Under the current proposals, they are both suspected victims of crime and eligible for removal to Rwanda. They may well have been trafficked here against their will, as we have heard, and they are now facing further jeopardy. We need to ensure that this jeopardy is removed, as far as we possibly can.”

She supported three amendments which she said offered “greater transparency” on this issue. “As currently drafted, the Bill will have a potentially devastating impact on survivors of modern slavery and our nation’s ability to tackle this crime.”

Bishop Faull also spoke in favour of another set of amendments brought by Lord Carlile and supported by the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who could not be present. These concerned the effect of the Bill on the rule of law, specifically the relationship between the Government and the judiciary.

She said: “Where the Supreme Court has ruled that Rwanda is not safe, it is an abuse of Parliament’s powers . . . for it to attempt to declare otherwise. We are concerned that the Bill represents a dangerous step. The amendments . . . attempt to preserve the important principle that facts should be considered by the courts. We must surely be able to take into account credible evidence that Rwanda is not a safe country.”

With the exception of the general risk to vulnerable people, this was the “most worrying aspect” of the Bill, she suggested.

Lord Deben argued that the Bill was problematic because “it proposes that the sovereignty of Parliament is able to make a situation true, whether it is or not”.

Endorsing this supposition, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, cautioned that “there is a difference between truth and factuality. Something can be not factual, but it can be true.” He gave the example of a parable. “If I say I am a banana, it does not make me a banana. There has to be some credible questioning of that. I am not a banana. A country does not become safe because someone says it is, even if a Government says that. That has to be demonstrated.”

Later in the debate, Dr Francis-Dehqani supported an amendment from the Conservative peer Lord Kirkhope, which sought to prevent delays in addressing human-rights concerns brought by the judiciary. This would be in the form of a statement, within 28 days of a court ruling that a person should not be sent to Rwanda on the grounds of human-rights concerns, from the Government setting out the reasons why this should be overruled.

Dr Francis-Dehqani said: “We should not forget that the Government have been unable to make a statement in the Bill that it is compatible with convention rights. As the Government nevertheless wish Parliament to proceed with the Bill, it seems prudent to probe what the role of Parliament would be in determining how any potential incompatibility should be addressed. . .

“The Human Rights Act does not compel the Government or Parliament to remedy an incompatibility, but Parliament must be able to take steps to do so. It is not unreasonable to expect Ministers to explain — and to explain without delay — why they may not be bringing forward a remedial order.”

Speaking on behalf of Archbishop Welby, the Bishop of Edmundsbury & Ipswich, the Rt Revd Martin Seeley, supported an amendment to remove a clause in the Bill in which, he said, “large chunks” of the Human Rights Act had been disapplied. This would be replaced with a “limited disapplication of the Act to allow the Secretary of State to lay positive UNHCR advice before Parliament”. This supported earlier amendments tabled by Baroness Chakrabarti (News, 16 February).

Responding, the Conservative peer Lord Stewart said that the Government considered the removal of sections of the Human Rights Act to be “fair, necessary and lawful, because we have now addressed every reason that has been used to prevent removal to Rwanda”.

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