Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a news conference at Downing Street, in London, on April 22.Toby Melville/Reuters

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has finally managed to win parliamentary approval for his controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, but the measure could still be derailed by a wave of lawsuits.

Mr. Sunak has been grappling for months with the issue of how to stop small boat crossings from France, which have soared in recent years. More than 29,000 migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries made the perilous journey across the English Channel last year, an annual figure that has more than tripled since 2020, according to figures from the Home Office. So far this year some 5,000 people have made the crossing, a 43-per-cent increase over the same period in 2023.

On Tuesday five people, including a child, died when a boat carrying 100 migrants ran into difficulty in the channel. French coast guard officials said more than 40 others had to be rescued from the water, but the remainder stayed in the boat and carried on toward Britain. Charities that work with refugees say about 400 people have died over the past few years.

Mr. Sunak has repeatedly promised to begin deporting unauthorized migrants to Rwanda, with whom Britain has an agreement to process their refugee claims. If their claim is accepted, they can remain in Rwanda. If it is rejected, they can apply to stay in Rwanda on other grounds or seek asylum in another “safe third country.” However, the claimants would not be allowed to return to Britain.

The Prime Minister’s efforts had been blocked by legal challenges and the House of Lords, which refused to consent to a bill that would enact the plan. The parliamentary standoff finally ended early Tuesday when the Lords relented, clearing the way for the bill to become law this week.

“The passing of this landmark legislation is not just a step forward but a fundamental change in the global equation on migration,” Mr. Sunak said Tuesday. “Our focus is to now get flights off the ground, and I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives.”

It’s still far from certain when or if the first migrants will be sent to Rwanda. Mr. Sunak said Monday that it will take as much as three months for the program to become fully operational. Several charities that work with refugees have also signalled that they will challenge the law in court, which could include an application to the European Court of Human Rights.

“This shameful bill trashes the constitution and international law whilst putting torture survivors and other refugees at risk of an unsafe future in Rwanda,” said a joint statement from Liberty, Amnesty International and Freedom from Torture.

“The U.K. government’s plan to forcibly and permanently expel people seeking safety in the U.K. – including children and survivors of torture and trafficking to Rwanda – is inhumane,” added Médecins Sans Frontières.

Open this photo in gallery:

People, believed to be migrants, disembark from a British Border Force vessel as they arrive at Port of Dover, on April 23.Toby Melville/Reuters

A group of UN experts has also warned airlines about participating in the scheme. “If airlines and aviation authorities give effect to state decisions that violate human rights, they must be held responsible for their conduct,” said the three UN special rapporteurs who work on issues related to human trafficking, human rights and torture.

Mr. Sunak has made stopping the boats a flagship commitment of the government and has been undeterred by critics. “We introduced the Rwanda Bill to deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs who exploit them,” he said during a news conference Monday. “The passing of this legislation will allow us to do that and make it very clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay.”

The government has been trying for years, without success, to stop the flow of asylum seekers across the English Channel.

In 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson struck a refugee agreement with Rwanda in the hope of deporting thousands of undocumented migrants to the African country. Britain agreed to cover the costs of running the program, which have soared to about £370-million ($626-million).

Last fall a five-judge panel of the British Supreme Court unanimously found the treaty unlawful because Rwanda cannot be considered a safe country given its poor human-rights record.

In response to the ruling, Mr. Sunak introduced the Rwanda Bill, which he said would address the court’s concerns. He has argued that the treaty and the legislation were designed to help Rwanda improve its refugee adjudication processes and ensure that Rwandan authorities do not deport unsuccessful claimants to an unsafe country. The legislation also says that “in the judgment of the UK parliament the Republic of Rwanda is a safe country.” And it overrides some human-rights laws in order to limit the ability of asylum seekers to challenge their removal in British courts.

Mr. Sunak has been hoping that, by addressing the small boat crossings with the Rwanda Bill, he can bolster the Conservative Party’s fortunes in the general election expected this fall. The Tories trail far behind the Labour Party in opinion polls, but Mr. Sunak sees immigration as a dividing line with Labour, which has vowed to scrap the Rwanda plan.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the party’s Home Office critic, has said the Rwanda program is a waste of money and that a Labour government would spend the money on increased border security and clearing the substantial backlog of asylum applications.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised on April 22 to start sending asylum seekers to Rwanda within 10 to 12 weeks as the upper house of parliament finally passed required legislation, delayed for weeks by attempts to alter the plan.


Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe