The UK’s Migrant Deportation Legislation Delayed Yet Again

Sébastien Gray
Sébastien Gray
Sébastien is a published journalist and historicist with over six years of experience in freelance journalism and research. His primary expertise is in African conflict and politics, with additional specialization in Israeli/Palestinian and Armenia/Azerbaijan conflicts. Sébastien serves as the deputy desk chief for Africa.

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“Parliamentary Ping Pong”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party has faced yet another setback as the UK’s House of Lord’s has voted for the second time to put amendments on the Safety of Rwanda Bill, thus sending it back to the House of Commons in what is known as “Parliamentary ping pong”. The House of Commons, which is full of elected parliamentarians, and the House of Lord’s, which is unelected, will have to find a common ground on the legislation before it is able to pass.

The House of Lord’s voted to make amendments to the legislation that would require ministers to take “due regard to domestic and international law”, restore the jurisdiction of domestic courts on the matter, as well as an amendment which would only declare Rwanda to be a ‘safe country’ when a treaty Rwanda signed with the UK is implemented.

British PM Rishi Sunak pictured in a press conference discussing the Safety of Rwanda bill on January 18th, 2024 (Photo from Reuters).

The Safety of Rwanda Bill seeks to establish Rwanda as a safe country under UK law, in order to satisfy the UK’s legal requirements in their plan to deport illegal migrants and illegal asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda. The bill also seeks to give ministers the power to ignore emergency injunctions, as well as to halt legal challenges from outside the UK, an issue which had previously stopped deportation flights from the UK to Rwanda.

The delay means the legislation may not be enacted, if it is enacted, until mid-April at the earliest, after parliament returns from Easter break. And of course, delays to the legislation itself means further delays to any deportation flights, which the government says could take at least a month to organize.

PM Sunak is now facing increased pressure as it becomes increasingly unlikely he will be able to hold to his promise that flights would take off in Spring. The pressure is further worsened by the fact that the UK is likely to hold an election this year, the polls for which the Conservative party is trailing behind in.

The Bill

The Safety of Rwanda bill seeks to establish Rwanda as a ‘safe’ country according to UK law. The reasoning for this is a deal the UK has signed with Rwanda in order to deport illegal immigrants and illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda, meant to be a deterrent for small boat crossings into the UK from the English Channel.

The deal and relevant legislation, however, were struck down by the UK’s supreme court in November on the grounds that Rwanda was not a ‘safe’ country for those being deported. The court claimed that deportees could face mistreatment in Rwanda, deportation from Rwanda to their nation of origin or a third country, and that Rwanda’s capabilities to receive an influx of deportees from the UK was not good enough.

PM Sunak and conservative MP James Cleverly tabled the Safety of Rwanda bill in response, after signing a new agreement with Rwanda. The new agreement, signed December 5th, 2023, carries with it provisions to ensure that people sent to Rwanda cannot be deported from Rwanda to another country.

UK Home Secretary James Cleverly (left) and Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Vincent Biruta (right) at the signing of the treaty in Kigali, on December 5th, 2023 (Photo from Olivier Mugwiza).

Additionally, the bill seeks to halt legal challenges from entities outside the UK, such as the European Court of Human Rights, which has prevented deportations to Rwanda in the past. PM Sunak had previously said the “decision will lie entirely with ministers”, however the amendments tabled by the Lord’s seeks to restore the jurisdiction of domestic courts and allow their intervention.

Thus far, the UK has already spent 240 million pounds (304 million USD) on the plan in payments to Rwanda, largely in order to facilitate the upgrade of Rwandan institutions and increase their ability to receive a large flow of migrants from the UK. Upon the plan’s completion, it is set to cost the UK a total of at least 370 million pounds (470 million USD).

The cost of the plan is another source of pressure being applied on PM Sunak, particularly if the plan fails to take off. Many have asked if the UK would be able to receive a refund from Rwanda if no planes actually travel to the country.

The answer to those questions is rather inconclusive thus far. Speaking to a BBC journalist at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum summit in Davos in January, Rwandan President Paul Kagame stated that the money was “only going to be used if those people will come. If they don’t come, we can return the money”.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Rwandan President Paul Kagame meeting in London in May, 2023 (Photo from Urugwiro Village)

However, in a government statement later released, the Rwandan government stated that “under the terms of the agreement, Rwanda has no obligation to return any of the funds paid”. They further added that if the UK requests a refund, it would be considered.

“If no migrants come to Rwanda under the scheme, and the UK government wishes to request a refund of the portion of the funding allocated to support the migrants, we will consider this request” -Rwandan Government Spokeswoman Yolande Makolo

PM Sunak has said that he would “fight to return taxpayers money” if the plan were to fail, but has remained insistent that flights will take off in Spring.

Notably, Rwanda has a deal with Libya, the UN Refugee Agency, and the African Union in order to receive refugees from Libya that originate from a number of countries.

Stop the Boats

The Rwanda deportation plan is the flagship of PM Sunak’s ‘Stop the Boats’ initiative, which is meant to deter illegal immigrants from making the journey across the English Channel to the UK in small boats. The journey is very dangerous, and one oftentimes organized by human trafficking groups. Journeys made by migrants to various destinations in Europe regularly result in fatalities after poor quality and overcrowded boats capsize.

PM Sunak claimed in January the plan was working, stating that small boat entries into the UK were down a third in 2023 from 2022. However, March 20th was the busiest day for small boat migrant entries into the UK, with the British Home Office stating they intercepted 10 different small boats with 514 migrants on board, which was the highest total so far in 2024.

The 514 who crossed brings the recorded total crossings of migrants across the English Channel to 4,043, which is higher than in the same period in 2023, which was 3,683 people. Nearly half, 1,788 so far, have arrived within March alone.

“We continue to work closely with French police who are facing increasing violence and disruption on their beaches as they work tirelessly to prevent these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys. We remain committed to building on the successes that saw arrivals drop by more than a third last year, including tougher legislation and agreements with international partners, in order to save lives and stop the boats” -A statement from a UK Home Office Spokesperson

The journey’s danger was highlighted in particular as police discovered one of the migrants on March 20th had several stab wounds. The man, who arrived on a boat at Dover Western Docks, reported he had been attacked on a beach in France near Calais who stayed in France, meanwhile he made the crossing, while wounded.

The man was taken to a hospital for treatment and later discharged, and information has been passed on to French police in order to form an investigation.