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The UK government finally passes bill to send migrants to Rwanda, but the battle is not over

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LONDON (AP) — The British Parliament has finally passed legislation to send some migrants to Rwanda, clearing the runway for flights this summer under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ’s controversial plan aimed at deterring risky English Channel crossings by people desperate to reach the U.K.

A bill designed to unblock a plan beset by court challenges and legislative battles was approved early Tuesday, delivering what Sunak hopes will be a much-needed political victory and fulfill his pledge to “stop the boats.”

Human rights activists and migrants’ groups have vowed to continue the fight against the policy, which they say is unethical and inhumane.

Here’s a look at the plan and what it took to reach this stage.

WHAT IS THE RWANDA PLAN?

The Rwanda plan is the British government’s response to the growing number of migrants from around the world — reaching a high of 46,000 in 2022 — who cross the English Channel from France to Britain in small boats.

Most people who arrive that way apply for asylum, and in the past many have been granted it. The Conservative government says these migrants should not be treated as genuine refugees because they did not claim asylum in another safe country, such as France, that they reached first.

In an attempt to deter people from making the risky journeys, the U.K. struck a deal with Rwanda in April 2022 to send migrants who arrive in the U.K. as stowaways or in boats to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay.

Human rights groups and other critics of the plan say it is unworkable and unethical to send migrants to a country 4,000 miles (6,400 miles) away that they don’t want to live in. No one has yet been sent to Rwanda, but Sunak has said the first flights will leave in July.

WHY D
ID IT TAKE SO LONG TO REACH THIS POINT?

The Rwanda plan was immediately met with legal challenges. The first removal flight was grounded at the last moment in June 2022 after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights,

The case ultimately reached Britain’s Supreme Court, which dealt the government a defeat in November, ruling that the policy is unlawful because Rwanda is not a safe third country where migrants can be sent. Five justices unanimously said that “the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill-treatment” because they could be sent back to the home countries they had fled.

The judges said there was evidence Rwanda had a culture that misunderstood its obligations under the Refugee Convention, was dismissive toward asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and had little experience of the asylum procedures needed to handle the cases of migrants from around the world.

HOW DID THE U.K. GOVERNMENT RESPOND?

Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty in December pledging to strengthen protections for migrants, partly by barring Rwanda from sending any migrants deported from the U.K back to their home countries. Sunak’s government argued the treaty allowed it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill, which was passed Tuesday, pronounces the country safe, making it harder for migrants to challenge deportation and allows the British government to ignore injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights that seek to block removals.

If that fails to stop legal challenges, Sunak has said he would consider ignoring or leaving international human rights treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights. That move is backed by some members of Sunak’s governing Conservative Party, but would draw strong domestic opposition and international criticism. The only European countries that are not party to the rights convention are Belarus and Russia.

The Rwandan government insists it is “committed to its international obligations” and has been recognized by the U.N. and other international institutions “for our exemplary treatment of refugees.” Rwanda’s government says the country is ready to receive migrants from Britain, and has plans to build more than 1,000 houses, including recreational facilities, for the deportees.

HAVE OTHER COUNTRIES TRIED SIMILAR POLICIES?

Britain is not alone in trying to control irregular migration. Much of Europe and the U.S. is struggling with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.

A few countries have tried offshore processing of asylum seekers — notably Australia, which first sent migrants to the Pacific island nation of Nauru in 2001 and has operated an asylum-processing center there since 2012.

From 2013 to 2018, Israel had a deal with Rwanda to deport African migrants, until Israel’s supreme court declared it unlawful.

Denmark has moved away from a deal with Rwanda and wants to find a solution with fellow European Union countries.

“A British or Danish solution will solve a problem for the individual country,” Danish Immigration Minister Kaare Dybvad Bek told Danish broadcaster DR Tuesday. “But we believe a unified European solution will solve more problems, because you will also stop the people smugglers who today make billions from transporting people across the Mediterranean.”

Last year, Italy reached a deal with Albania for the Balkan country to temporarily house and process some of the thousands of migrants who reach Italian shores. There is a crucial difference from the U.K. plan: it’s not a one-way trip. Successful asylum-seekers would get to start new lives in Italy, not Albania.

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Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s global migration coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/migration

By JILL LAWLESS
Associated Press

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