New UK Government Ends Rwanda Deportation Plan

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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The UK’s new Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, has stated his government will be putting an end to the previous government’s plan to deport illegal migrants and illegal asylum seekers to Rwanda, scrapping the more than two-year-old plan.

The End of the Struggle

Former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson first announced the plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda more than two years ago. Since then, the plan has faced persistent legal challenges and political delays that have prevented any flights from taking off to Rwanda.

After now-former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak took over for the Conservative Party, he made it the flagship policy of his “Stop the Boats” campaign, meant to reduce and, ideally, stop the flow of small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel entering the UK.

The battle to get the policy off the ground became one of the greatest struggles of Sunak’s government. As time went on, this struggle only grew as it seemed increasingly unlikely that he would actually be able to enact the policy.

In late May, PM Sunak announced that flights were finally set for July 24th; the first concrete date for deportation flights that the PM had produced. However, he also announced that federal elections were officially set for July 4th.

Former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing the election on May 22nd amidst a rain shower outside 10 Downing Street in London,in the UK (Photo from Reuters).

The Labour Party, at the time the opposition, had objected to the plan since its inception. PM Starmer had stated that, if he was elected, he would repeal the plan and no flights would take off, and thus, the plan’s implementation hinged on the election results.

The election took place on July 4th, and the Labour Party experienced one of the largest victories in British history, while the Conservatives experienced their largest-ever loss. The Labour Party now holds a parliamentary majority, with 412 seats in the UK’s 650-seat House of Commons, while the Conservatives hold 121.

With the Labour victory, the plan is now effectively over, as was declared by PM Starmer, who stated the plan had been “dead and buried before it started.” PM Starmer stated the plan did not act as a legitimate deterrent for crossings—one of the primary purposes of the plan—and that his government would seek to produce legitimate change “within the early months and years of the government.”

The UK government has confirmed that almost all of the migrants who had been detained in preparation for deportation had been released by the Conservative government during the election campaign, with the remaining two in detention to be released in the next few days.

The Details and Challenges of the Rwanda Plan

Under the plan, illegal migrants and illegal asylum seekers who entered the UK through small boats transiting across the English Channel would have been deported to Rwanda. Within the terms of the deal, illegal migrants would be deported from the UK, and then resettled in Rwanda, where they cannot be sent by the Rwandan government to any third nation, including their nation of origin.

The Rwandan government had prepared an array of different housing opportunities for migrants, and language classes as well as assistance in finding jobs would have been offered.

As mentioned, the plan to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda was first announced two years ago. Since then, it has faced repeat legal challenges and parliamentary delays that have grounded flights. The most major challenge was in November, when the UK’s supreme court shut down the plan on the grounds that Rwanda could not be considered a “safe country” for migrants to be deported to.

In response, the UK signed a new partnership with Rwanda in December, and the Conservatives tabled the “Safety of Rwanda” bill. In addition to declaring Rwanda a safe country, the bill also sought to prevent external and internal court decisions from barring the plan, leaving the decision with government ministers.

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).

While the bill passed the UK’s House of Commons in January, the House of Lords attempted to instate a series of different amendments upon the bill, thus passing it back to the House of Commons. This process repeated several times, before the bill finally passed in late April.

When the new deal was signed with Rwanda, PM Sunak had promised to begin flights by spring. He maintained this promise through January, when the bill had passed in the House of Commons. When the bill finally passed the House of Lords in April, he broke this promise, stating flights would take off in “10-12 weeks,” meaning either late June or early July.

Upon announcing the election for July 4th, PM Sunak again broke this timeline, instead announcing the first date for flights to be July 24th.

Unanswered Questions

The UK has spent approximately £240 million GBP ($370 million) to date on the plan, mostly to upgrade Rwanda’s facilities, such as healthcare and education facilities, and improve its ability to receive a large influx of migrants. However, portions of this money remain unspent and are presently held by Rwanda, with the Rwandan government waiting to see if the plan would actually take off before spending the rest.

Former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at 10 Downing Street in London, in the UK (Photo from Paul Kagame on Instagram).

There has been a lack of clarity on whether the UK will be able to receive back its investment. PM Sunak had stated that if the plan failed during his ministry, he would fight to get back the money the UK spent on it. While PM Starmer is sure to return the UK’s investment as well, it is unclear the approach he will take to the matter or whether Rwanda will cooperate on the matter.

Speaking to a BBC journalist at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum summit in Davos, which took place 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.”

In slight contrast, however, Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo stated that “under the terms of the agreement, Rwanda has no obligation to return any of the funds paid,” but that if the UK were to request a refund, that Rwanda “will consider this request.”

The Rwandan government has said little else on the matter, and so it is uncertain if Rwanda will return the UK’s money.

Stop the Boats

The Rwanda plan was the flagship of PM Sunak’s “Stop the Boats” campaign. The policy was meant to deter small boat crossings, such as in dinghies, to the UK. The journey, which takes migrants across the English Channel from countries such as France and Belgium, is incredibly dangerous, and has led to fatalities among migrants on numerous occasions.

A photo of migrants arriving in the UK after having been intercepted by the UK’s border police. Following their arrival in the UK, many migrants attempt to claim asylum (Photo from PA Media).

The small boat crossings into the UK have brought in tens of thousands of migrants each year for the last several years, and have mostly been on an upward trend. While crossings fell in 2023, they have sharply increased this year.

Thus far in 2024, over 13,000 people have crossed the Channel and entered the UK in small boats. The amount of people entering this year has been consistently higher than at the same time in 2022, when a record 45,755 people crossed into the UK. As the year goes on, the rate of crossings increases. If this trend continues, 2024 will set a new record.

The UK has partnered with France in order to try and prevent crossings, spending hundreds of millions of pounds, and promising to invest more, to help fund the operations of French border and maritime police in an attempt to try and prevent crossings. According to the UK’s Home Office, this cooperation has prevented tens of thousands of crossings.

“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. Last year they stopped 26,000 people from reaching our shores.” -The UK Home Office

The government claims that many of these crossings are organized by human trafficking groups. As a part of PM Starmer’s policy to combat crossings, he has vowed to increase police and investigative resources to combat human trafficking groups.

A similar story can be seen on the northern coast of Africa and the Mediterranean coasts of various Middle Eastern nations, where migrants cross the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach European countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and France.

These journeys, too, are oftentimes organized by human traffickers, and have led to hundreds of fatalities in the past.