By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak won a vote in parliament on Tuesday over a bill which he hopes will allow Britain to send asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Britain to Rwanda.
Last month the British Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful and Sunak hopes the new legislation, when passed, will fulfil his pledge to stop people arriving across the Channel in small boats.
Here are details about the plan and the migration issue:
WHY IS IMMIGRATION SUCH AN ISSUE IN BRITAIN?
Taking back control of the country’s borders and ending the free movement of people was a major factor that led to the 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Polls show it remains one of the most important issues for voters.
Successive Conservative governments had previously promised to limit net migration to under 100,000 annually. But in 2022 it hit a record of 745,000, partly due to new visa routes for arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong.
In response, Sunak’s government has unveiled a series of measures that could slash that number by 300,000.
Meanwhile, in 2022 a record 45,775 people were detected arriving on small boats to England’s southern beaches without permission. So far this year almost 29,000 more have arrived.
WHAT IS BRITAIN’S RWANDA PLAN?
The Rwanda scheme, agreed in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is designed to deter migrants from making the dangerous journey of about 20 miles (32 km) across the Channel and break the business model of people smugglers.
Under the plan, anyone who arrived in Britain illegally after Jan. 1, 2022, faced being sent to Rwanda, some 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away.
However, the first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by European judges.
Last month, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands or to other countries where they would be at risk of mistreatment.
Despite no deportations taking place, Britain has already paid Rwanda 240 million pounds. While Britain hopes to send thousands of migrants, at the moment Rwanda only has the capacity to take a few hundred.
WHY IS THE RWANDA POLICY SO IMPORTANT TO SUNAK?
After becoming prime minister in October last year, Sunak made “stopping the boats” one of his top five priorities.
Britain is currently spending more than 3 billion pounds a year on processing asylum applications, with the cost of housing migrants awaiting a decision in hotels and other accommodation running at about 8 million pounds a day.
In August, the backlog of asylum applications waiting to be processed hit a record high of more than 134,000, or 175,457 once dependents were included. Sunak had promised to clear this.
WHAT IS SUNAK’S NEW EMERGENCY RWANDA BILL?
To address the issues raised by the Supreme Court, Sunak has agreed a new treaty with Rwanda that seeks to prevent anyone from being sent anywhere else other than back to Britain.
His emergency legislation affirms that Rwanda is a safe country. It disapplies some sections of Britain’s Human Rights Act and says ministers alone would decide on whether to comply with any injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. If passed, Sunak says flights to Rwanda will begin early next year.
However, his right-wing critics, many of whom want Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, have said it still allows legal challenges. His immigration minister quit.
WILL PARLIAMENT PASS SUNAK’S EMERGENCY RWANDA LAW?
In the first vote in parliament, where Sunak’s Conservatives have a working majority of 56, the bill passed by 313 votes to 269.
About 30 right-wing Conservatives abstained and threatened to vote against it at a later stage unless it is toughened up.
The government says while the law must permit individual challenges, the opportunities to do so were extremely small.
Sunak says the bill can go no further and that it is already pushing at the limits of complying with international law. Some legal experts say Britain would still be bound by findings of the European Court of Human Rights which could again issue injunctions to block deportation flights.
That is likely to anger his Conservative critics, and if 29 of his lawmakers rebel the government would face defeat on a future parliamentary vote.
Even if Sunak succeeds in getting the bill through the House of Commons, the legislation could still be held up by the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, preventing it from becoming law before a national election expected next year.
The Labour Party has vowed to scrap the policy if it wins.
HOW DOES BRITAIN COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?
Australia pioneered the concept of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centres. Denmark has signed a similar agreement with Rwanda, but has yet to send any migrants there, and Italy has recently announced plans to build reception centres in Albania.
Israel scrapped a similar deal with Rwanda in 2018 after five years, with the Israeli Supreme Court declaring it unlawful because Rwanda had not complied with assurances it had given.
According to the House of Commons Library, which provides research for British lawmakers, there were about 13 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in Britain in 2022, compared with 22 applications for every 10,000 people in the EU.
(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Kate Holton and Alex Richardson)