By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s parliament is set to vote on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s bill to allow the government to send asylum seekers who arrive without permission in Britain to Rwanda amid deep divisions in his Conservative Party on the issue.
Last November, the UK Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful and Sunak hopes the new legislation, when passed, will override legal concerns and 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 Britain’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.
Sunak’s government has announced a series of measures to cut legal migration by 300,000, and he has also promised to stop people making the dangerous journey of about 20 miles (32 km) across the Channel in small boats.
Meanwhile, more than 29,000 people arrived this way last year, after a record 45,775 migrants arrived in 2022. So far this year, more than 260 people have been detected and on Sunday French authorities said five migrants had died trying to cross.
WHAT IS BRITAIN’S RWANDA PLAN?
The Rwanda scheme, agreed in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was designed to deter migrants from coming to Britain illegally 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.
The Supreme Court then 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 ($304 million). 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 2022, Sunak made a pledge to “stop 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.
At the start of the year Sunak said he had met a pledge to clear a so-called “legacy backlog” of 92,000 asylum claims which were made before a June 2022 change in immigration law, although figures show about 100,000 applications remain to be decided.
WHAT IS SUNAK’S RWANDA BILL?
To address the issues raised by the Supreme Court, Sunak agreed a new treaty with Rwanda that seeks to prevent anyone from being sent anywhere else other than back to Britain.
His proposed bill, which the government stated might not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, 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 would begin in spring.
WILL PARLIAMENT PASS SUNAK’S RWANDA BILL?
Some legal experts say despite the bill Britain would still be bound by findings of the European Court of Human Rights, which could again issue injunctions to block deportation flights, and to comply with international law, asylum seekers could also still appeal to UK courts against their deportation.
That has angered Sunak’s right-wing Conservative critics who say the public will despair if the government fails to start sending people to Rwanda. The government has a working majority of 56 in the House of Commons, meaning in theory that if about 30 of his lawmakers rebel, he could lose a vote.
On Tuesday, about 60 lawmakers backed amendments to change the bill to ensure deportations could not be blocked by either British or European judges, and to all but eliminate an individual’s grounds for appeal.
Sunak says the bill can go no further and is already pushing at the limits of complying with international law, saying Rwanda would also pull the plug on the deal if it did. A final vote on the bill is expected on Wednesday.
Even if, Sunak gets the bill through the House of Commons lower house of parliament, the legislation could be held up by the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, preventing it from becoming law before this year’s election.
The Labour Party, which is ahead in opinion polls, has pledged to scrap the policy if it wins the election.
HOW DOES BRITAIN COMPARE WITH OTHER COUNTRIES?
Many European nations, such as Germany, have tightened their border controls to address immigration concerns, while the European Union has agreed a new deal on how to share out the cost and work of hosting migrants more evenly.
Denmark has also signed a similar agreement with Rwanda, but has yet to send any migrants there, and Italy has 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.
($1 = 0.7891 pounds)
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Angus MacSwan)