MPs have approved the Rwanda bill at third reading but the Rwandan President has suggested that the UK’s efforts to implement the scheme cannot go on indefinitely and the UNHCR has called it incompatible with international law. Five migrants have died while trying to cross the Channel. The accommodation used to house tens of thousands of asylum seekers will not be covered by new legislation aimed at ensuring the safety of social housing

The UK government’s controversial Rwanda bill has moved a step closer to adoption after MPs approved it at the third reading stage. Despite threats of a rebellion by members of the governing Conservative Party, the bill was approved on 17 January by 320 votes in favour to 276 votes against (of which only 11 were Conservatives). However, earlier in the week, 61 Conservative MPs had backed an amendment that had been tabled by former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and which was intended to enable the government to ignore parts of human rights law in relation to the Rwanda plan. Despite winning the vote, the victory was not without cost for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as two vice-chairs of the Conservative Party resigned the day before so that they could support amendments to the bill. Following the vote, one of the Conservative MPs who voted against the bill, Sir Simon Clarke, said: “All Conservatives want the Rwanda policy to succeed… the profound misgivings some of us hold about the bill are on record, but history will now relate who was right.” Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged the House of Lords to pass the bill telling journalists: “There is now only one question: will the opposition in the appointed House of Lords try and frustrate the will of the people as expressed by the elected house? Or will they get on board and do the right thing? It’s as simple as that. We have a plan, and the plan is working.” Meanwhile, the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper told MPs: “This chaos leaves the prime minister’s authority in tatters – he’s in office but not in power. No one agrees with him on his policy. And the real weakness is that he doesn’t even agree with it himself.” Freedom from Torture tweeted: “Whatever this government says, we know the truth: there’s MANY more of us standing for a compassionate asylum system that welcomes tortures survivors and refugees”.

While the debates and votes on the Rwanda bill were taking place in the House of Commons, the government also set out plans to recruit 150 judges to process appeals by migrants against their deportation to Rwanda under the Illegal Migration Act. In a written statement to parliament, Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said: “We are confident that, with the additional court room and judicial capacity … the vast majority of Illegal Migration Act appeal work will be dealt with by the courts in an expedited manner”. However, in an appearance before the Justice Committee on 16 January, Lady Chief Justice Sue Carr said “matters of deployment of judges, the allocation of work for judges, and the use of courtrooms, is exclusively a matter for the judiciary”. However, the President of Rwanda suggested that the UK’s efforts to implement its Rwanda plan could not continue indefinitely. He told journalists on 17 January: “There are limits for how long this can drag on” and “It is the UK’s problem, not ours”. Responding to questions about the money that the UK had already paid to Rwanda, he said: “The money is going to be used on those people who will come. If they don’t come we can return the money.” Meanwhile, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has stated that the Rwanda bill is still incompatible with international law. On 15 January, the UNHCR published an update to its ‘Analysis of the Legality and Appropriateness of the Transfer of Asylum-Seekers under the UK-Rwanda arrangement’ document in which it concluded that the revised plan “does not meet the required standards relating to the legality and appropriateness of the transfer of asylum seekers and is not compatible with international refugee law”.

The government has also been accused of having lost contact with over 4000 people who have been identified for removal to Rwanda. Shadow Home Office minister Stephen Kinnock MP told MPs “(…) over the weekend it emerged that the Home Office has lost contact with an astonishing 85% of the 5,000 people who have been identified for removal to Rwanda.” Home Secretary James Cleverly responded that the government was “driving down the numbers of people in the backlog, (…) processing applications more quickly, (…) ensuring that decisions are made so that those who should not be in this country can be removed either to their own country or a safer country.” The government has also been accused of ignoring human rights concerns in Rwanda in an effort to declare the country as safe. According to the Mirror, “A Home Office assessment said Rwanda was a “relatively peaceful country with respect for the rule of law” but admitted there are “issues with its human rights record around political opposition to the current regime, dissent and free speech”. In addition, openDemocracy has revealed that the UNHCR warned the Home Office in March 2022 about the difficulties that LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face in Rwanda. It said: “LGBTQ+ asylum seekers in Rwanda have previously been given immediate verbal rejections by officials responsible for registering applications, who said it “is not the place for them, or Rwanda does not deal with such issues”. It added that the Home Office “was warned in 2022 that LGBTQ+ people in Rwanda face torture and abuse because of their sexuality and gender”.

The Home Office’s publication of its long-awaited report on safe and legal routes on 11 January has been severely criticised for failing to include any proposals for new safe and legal routes. In a statement issued on 12 January, the executive director of the UK branch of ECRE member organisation the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Laura Kyrke-Smith, said: “The government should be in no doubt that its continued failure to introduce new safe routes to the UK will cost lives, as desperate people feel they have no choice but to make dangerous journeys.” She added: “The current policy mix of inadequate resettlement schemes, ineffective deterrence measures and the removal of the right to seek asylum will not stop the boats. The government should invest the money currently being spent on deterrence measures in a functioning asylum system and adequate, accessible safe routes for people in great danger and need”. Two days later, five migrants died when the boat they were in capsized as they tried to cross the channel in the early hours of 14 January. They were part of a group of more than 70 people who were trying to get into a small boat as it was being launched from a beach near Calais. 72 people were rescued during the night of whom 20 were suffering advanced hypothermia, and two young children and one pregnant woman were taken to Boulogne for urgent care. The Guardian reported local media sources’ claims that four of the dead had been identified as Iraqi and Syrian. The chief executive of ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, expressed his sadness about the deaths and said that that they must act as a “wake-up call” for the UK government to “take decisive action and reduce dangerous Channel crossings by providing safe routes for those fleeing war-torn countries or repressive regimes”. Later in the day, the Utopia 56 group reported that some of the people who had been rescued from the sea had been evicted from where they were living in Calais. Writing on X, the group said: “While five people died last night off the coast of Calais, a CRS convoy is in the process of evicting people from different places of life in the city. The survivors of the shipwreck have already been returned to the streets.” (Translated from French).

 Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Doctors of the World, providing primary healthcare to asylum seekers in a former military base in Wethersfield, Essex, reported that more than one in three people living on the site have reported suicidal thoughts. Dr Javid Abdelmoneim from MSF told ITV News Anglia: “Just looking at the people we saw in December, 37% described having suicide ideation, which means they had thoughts about suicide, not necessarily plans.” He added: “The population are from countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea. They’ve been violated, extorted, kidnapped, persecuted for their ethnicity or background – to then come into this pseudo-military prison [is] just not good for them”. Besides, a new report from the Centre for Homelessness Impact has revealed that there was a 223% surge in people leaving asylum being made street homeless between June and September 2023. Professor Philip Brown from the University of Huddersfield, who led the team of academics that wrote the report said: “Those people who arrive in the UK to seek sanctuary have, over the last few decades, been increasingly finding themselves accommodated in precarious situations, often enduring homelessness.” In addition, accommodation used to house tens of thousands of asylum seekers is set to be excluded from a crackdown on landlords who manage social housing. Following the death of a two child, Awaab Ishak, due to prolonged exposure to black mould in his family’s rented accommodation, the government agreed to introduce a new law which would require landlords to deal with damp and mould problems in social housing. However, the Home Office told the Guardian that the Social Housing (Regulation) Act 2023 will only apply to landlords who are a “registered provider of social housing and if the dwelling under the lease is categorised as social housing”. It adds that accommodation for asylum seekers “does not normally fall into this category” so would be excluded from the new legal requirement. The chief executive of Refugee Action, Tim Naor Hilton, said: “Our services teams continue to see people, including families with babies and sick children, living in squalid properties where dangerous mould and damp is rampant”, and urged the government to apply the law to asylum accommodation, saying: “Asylum accommodation must be made subject to national housing standards and companies held to account for the shocking conditions that some people must live in.”

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