UK PM Sunak’s new Rwanda plan suffers blow as immigration minister quits

By Alistair Smout and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out draft emergency legislation on Wednesday which he said would pave the way for asylum seekers to be deported to Rwanda, but immediately suffered a major setback when his immigration minister quit.

The “Safety of Rwanda Bill”, published the day after Britain signed a new treaty with Rwanda, is designed to overcome a ruling by the UK Supreme Court that the government’s proposed scheme to send thousands of asylum seekers to the East African country was unlawful.

The government said the bill was “the toughest immigration legislation ever introduced” and it would be fast-tracked through parliament, but it immediately divided his party and prompted talk of further legal challenges.

“Through this new landmark emergency legislation, we will control our borders, deter people taking perilous journeys across the channel and end the continuous legal challenges filling our courts,” said Sunak, who has said flights would begin in the spring next year.

The bill will instruct judges to ignore some sections of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and provisions of domestic or international law that might deem that Rwanda was not a safe country to send asylum seekers to, though appeals by people based on specific circumstances would still be permitted.

Ministers alone would also decide on whether to comply with any injunction from the European Court of Human Rights which issued an interim order blocking the first planned flight last year.

But one Conservative lawmaker said the fact the legislation still allowed a court to consider an appeal in some circumstances was “an invitation to claimants to clog the courts with spurious claims”.

The Rwanda plan is at the centre of Sunak’s immigration policy, and its success is likely to affect the fortunes of his Conservatives. The party has been in power for 13 years and is trailing by about 20 percentage points in opinion polls before an election expected next year and with the issue one of the biggest concerns among voters.

Sunak had hoped to satisfy critics on the right of the party, who have called for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.

But those appeared dashed by the resignation of immigration minister Robert Jenrick, an ally of the prime minister, who said the proposals did not go far enough.

“The stakes for the country are too high for us not to pursue the stronger protections required to end the merry-go-round of legal challenges,” Jenrick said in a resignation letter to Sunak posted on X.

In his response, Sunak said he thought Jenrick had misunderstood the situation.

“If we were to oust the courts entirely, we would collapse the entire scheme,” he said, adding the Rwandan government would not accept it. “There would be no point in passing a law that would leave us with nowhere to send people to.”


Meanwhile, other Conservatives, who said they might not support a bill which flouts international law, welcomed assurances from the government that the measures were legal.

Rwanda’s foreign minister Vincent Biruta also said it was legal, adding that “without lawful behaviour by the UK, Rwanda would not be able to continue with the… partnership.”

However, legal commentators said the new legislation would inevitably face challenges in the courts.

“If the government had wished to avoid legal challenges… it seems unlikely that it would have chosen to introduce a bill in this form,” said Nick Vineall, chair of the Bar Council.

The government says the Rwanda scheme would deter migrants from paying people smugglers to ferry them from Europe across the Channel to Britain.

Almost 29,000 people have arrived on the southern English coast without permission this year, after a record 45,755 were detected in 2022. The cost of housing the 175,000 migrants awaiting an asylum decision is 8 million pounds ($10 million) a day.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the plan would violate international human rights laws enshrined in domestic legislation because deficiencies in the Rwanda asylum system meant migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands where they were at risk of abuse.

The government said its new binding treaty, which replaced a memorandum of understanding, together with the new law will satisfy those concerns.

A senior politician in the opposition Labour Party, Pat McFadden, accused the government of “gimmicks” and said the latest resignation shows why an election is needed.

“This latest chaotic chapter demonstrates why the country is ready for change,” he said.

(Reporting by Michael Holden, Alistair Smout, Kylie MacLellan and Muvija M in London, additional reporting by Philbert Girinema in Kigali; Editing by David Evans and Grant McCool)