• The Rwanda Bill has finally been adopted but it has immediately drawn criticism from various high-level sources, including the Council of Europe and the United Nations.
  • The civil service trade union has warned the government that it is considering a legal challenge if the enactment of the Rwanda scheme requires its members to breach international law.
  • Three United Nations special rapporteurs have expressed concerns that airlines involved in the Rwanda scheme could be complicit in human rights violations.
  • Five people, including a seven-year-old-girl, have died as they tried to cross the Channel in a small boat.
  • The Refugee Council has published a new report in which it warns that the 2023 Illegal Migration Act and the Rwanda scheme will cause a “system meltdown” that will leave more than 100,000 people in “permanent limbo” and cost up to £17.1 million per day by the end of 2024.

After months of debates and standoffs between the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Rwanda Bill was finally approved on 22 April. Although the ‘Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill’ has now completed its passage through parliament and received royal assent, no deportations to the East African country are expected until July at the earliest. Speaking to journalists before the final vote had taken place, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that no flights would leave for “10 to 12 weeks”. On 23 April, he described the adoption of the legislation as “a fundamental change in the global equation on migration”. The leader of the opposition Labour party, Sir Keir Starmer, was rather less positive, describing the government’s entire Rwanda policy as a “gimmick” that would not only fail but that would also cost “an absolute fortune”. Unsurprisingly, the adoption of the bill was met with immediate criticism and dismay from various quarters. Although the government might have expected criticism from opposition members in both houses of parliament as well as NGOs working on asylum and migration issues, it may have been more surprised to find the Rwanda scheme being publicly denounced by both the Council of Europe (CoE) and the United Nations (UN). “The adoption of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill by the UK Parliament raises major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law more generally”, said Michael O’Flaherty, the CoE Commissioner for Human Rights, adding: “The United Kingdom government should refrain from removing people under the Rwanda policy and reverse the Bill’s effective infringement of judicial independence”. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi described the new legislation as “a further step away from the UK’s long tradition of providing refuge to those in need, in breach of the Refugee Convention”. He added that the UK’s new “arrangement” sought to “shift responsibility for refugee protection, undermining international cooperation and setting a worrying global precedent”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk was equally critical. “By shifting responsibility for refugees, reducing the UK’s courts’ ability to scrutinise removal decisions, restricting access to legal remedies in the UK and limiting the scope of domestic and international human rights protections for a specific group of people, this new legislation seriously hinders the rule of law in the UK and sets a perilous precedent globally”, he said, adding: “It is critical to the protection of the human rights and dignity of refugees and migrants seeking protection that all removals from the UK are carried out after assessing their specific individual circumstances in strict compliance with international human rights and refugee law”.

Despite the government’s evident relief following the adoption of the Rwanda Bill, it seems that it does not expect the implementation of the Rwanda scheme to proceed entirely smoothly. On 23 April, Minister for Illegal Migration Michael Tomlinson told the BBC that the government was prepared for a “whole range of legal challenges” while Nicholas Hughes, a lawyer representing some of the people who may be sent to Rwanda, confirmed that he and his colleagues were planning to do “everything we can” to prevent deportations. In any case, before it faces any external legal challenges to the scheme, the government will first need to ensure that civil servants are actually willing to enact it. According to the Guardian, the FDA civil service union has written to Home Secretary James Cleverly to inform him that it is “considering a potential challenge to the government” if civil servants might find themselves “in breach of international law and therefore the civil service code” in enacting the Rwanda scheme. The union has previously warned that civil servants could be “open to prosecution, if they followed a minister’s demands to ignore an urgent injunction from Strasbourg banning a deportation”.

Assuming that civil servants are willing to enact deportations, the next issue that government may have to resolve as a matter of urgency concerns the contracting of an airline to transport people from the UK to Rwanda. Although both the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have stated that flights have already been booked, neither of them has named the carriers involved. Some airlines and aviation authorities may be reluctant to participate in the scheme following concerns expressed by a group of UN special rapporteurs (SRs) that to do so could make them complicit in human rights violations. According to a UN press release issued on the day of the final vote on the Rwanda Bill, the UNSR on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; the UNSR on human rights of migrants, and the UNSR on torture said: “removing asylum-seekers to Rwanda or any other country where they would be at risk of refoulement would violate the right to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. Siobhán Mullally, Gehad Madi and Allice Jill Edwards also warned: “If airlines and aviation authorities give effect to State decisions that violate human rights, they must be held responsible for their conduct”. “As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights underline, aviation regulators, international organisations and business actors are required to respect human rights,” they added.

A matter of hours after MPs adopted the Rwanda Bill in London, five people, including a seven-year-old girl, died off the coast of France as they tried to cross the Channel in a small boat. According to French authorities, the boat set off from Wimereux, near Boulogne, with 112 people on board. Commenting on the tragedy, the Prime Minister said that it showed why the Rwanda scheme was necessary to act as a “deterrent” in order to prevent people from trying to cross the Channel in small boats. He also stated that it was important to “break the business model” of the criminal gangs that facilitated the crossings. The CEO of the NGO Safe Passage, Wanda Wyporska, rejected the idea that the Rwanda scheme would prevent people smuggling. “It won’t disrupt the smugglers’ grip on dangerous journeys, with refugees suffering for this government’s failures. We need safe routes, such as a refugee visa, urgently”, she said.

According to a new report by ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council, the collective result of the 2023 Illegal Migration Act (IMA) and the Rwanda scheme will be “immense cost, chaos and human misery”. The organisation has warned that the IMA and the Rwanda scheme will cause a “system meltdown” that will leave more than 100,000 people in “permanent limbo” by the end of 2024. Based on new analysis, it has also estimated that the cost of accommodating those people would be up to £17.1 million per day (£6.2 billion per year) and that no more than 2000 people would be sent to Rwanda during the same period. The organisation has called on the government to repeal the Rwanda Bill and the IMA, to treat people seeking asylum with dignity, to expand safe routes, including through the provision of refugee visas, and to establish agreements with the EU and France to manage migration movements and allow families to reunite. In a press release issued to mark the launch of the new report, Refugee Council CEO Enver Solomon said: “Rather than laying the foundations for the next asylum crisis, any Government that wants a fair and efficient asylum system should repeal the legislation, stop wasting resources on futile endeavours and focus on the vital task of processing asylum claims promptly and fairly”.

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