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Rwanda Bill clears Parliament despite Lords’ objections

23 April 2024

Alamy

A group of people thought to be migrants are disembarked from a Border Force vessel in Dover at the end of last month, having been rescued from a small boat in the English Channel

A group of people thought to be migrants are disembarked from a Border Force vessel in Dover at the end of last month, having been rescued from a smal...

THE Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill has been passed by both Houses of Parliament after last-ditch attempts by peers to amend it were rejected by MPs during a parliamentary ping-pong that concluded just after midnight on Tuesday.

The Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent in the coming days.

Lords spiritual and other peers have attempted repeatedly to amend the Bill over the past few months, expressing concern on its effect on the rule of law, how the safety of Rwanda can be determined accurately now and in the future, whether modern slavery victims would be protected, and to include exemptions for vulnerable groups. The House of Commons, where the Government has a comfortable majority, rejected them all.

On Monday night, two issues remained: determining safety, and whether to exempt or include members of the UK armed forces working overseas from being deported to Rwanda. Lord Browne resurrected his amendment on the latter — but later accepted what he described as a “concession” on the matter from Lord Sharpe, who read the following statement to the House: “Once this review of ARAP [Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy] decisions for those with credible links to Afghan specialist units has concluded, the Government will not remove to Rwanda those who have received a positive eligibility decision as a result of this review, where they are already in the UK as of today.”

No bishops spoke during these final stages, but the Bishops of Chelmsford and Derby both voted in favour of an amendment from Lord Anderson on determining safety. This required the Government to consult with the Independent Monitoring Committee in future; if the Committee did not agree that Rwanda was safe, the country would be deemed not to be so. It was passed by 240 to 211.

MPs rejected the amendment 312 to 237, however, and the Bill was passed unamended.

Responding, Lord Anderson described his attempt as “modest and unthreatening to the Government’s policy. But it at least touched on a central disease of this Bill and perhaps of our body politic more generally: the imputation of decisions to Parliament to reduce the possibilities for challenge and the pretence that, by asserting something to be true, even in the teeth of the evidence, one can not only make it true but keep it true for ever.”

The overall purpose of the Bill is described as to “prevent and deter unlawful migration” — particularly by illegal routes — by “confirming” that the Republic of Rwanda is “a safe third country, thereby enabling the removal of persons who arrive in the UK under the Immigration Acts”.

This is despite a Supreme Court ruling (News, 17 November 2023) that unanimously upheld a Court of Appeal ruling that the policy would leave people sent to Rwanda open to human-rights breaches (News, 7 July 2023). In 2022, the High Court had ruled that the policy was lawful (News, 23 December 2022).

In the early hours of Tuesday, a child was reported to be among five people who drowned attempting to cross the Channel from France. The French Coastguard said that a small boat containing more than 110 people set sail from a beach near Wimereux.

The Illegal Immigration Minister, Michael Tomlinson, said that the deterrent effect of the Bill would “kick in” once flights had started.

“Can we deport the elephant in the room?”

Before the debates on Monday night, the Prime Minister gave a press conference on the Bill, during which he said that his patience with delays to its parliamentary passage had “run thin”, and that he expected the first chartered flights to leave for Rwanda within ten to 12 weeks. He had initially promised that the first flights would leave in the spring of 2024.

Mr Sunak, while giving no details about the numbers of people to be deported under the scheme, said that he expected there to be “multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond”.

His speech prompted a backlash from refugee charities, including the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which described the Rwanda plan as remaining “as inhumane as it is absurd. It will destroy lives, plunge vulnerable people into danger and sees us abandon our duty towards people seeking sanctuary here. And all for the sake of an election gimmick. This is not who we are.”

The JRS reported that the Home Office had recently begun contacting people who had been refused asylum in the UK to offer “voluntary departure” to Rwanda. “JRS UK is among many organisations concerned about people being placed under pressure to go to Rwanda in this way, especially as the process around such ‘voluntary departures’ lacks transparency.”

The Detention Outreach Manager for JRS UK, Naomi Blackwell, said that that prospect was “deeply terrifying for refugees. And in detention, people are often told nothing about what’s happening to them. It’s disproportionately difficult to get legal advice; they may not even have phone credit to ring someone to ask about it. Our politicians need to stop their theatrics and remember that there are actual people on the sharp end of this.”

A video from the Refugee Council, campaigning against the Government’s asylum policy, was circulated on social media over the weekend. It featured celebrities such as the actors Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Daniel Radcliffe, and Luke Evans. They called on the Government to rethink proposed laws that would criminalise people who are being forced to flee their homelands.

The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said on Monday: “Tens of thousands of men, women and children will be stranded in the UK indefinitely, shut out from the asylum system, unable to work, unable to be returned to their own country, and in need of indefinite support.

“The Government must stop wasting time and resources on futile endeavours and focus instead on the vital task of processing asylum claims promptly and fairly.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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