by Ambra Visentin

The attempt to pass legislation to allow the deportation to Rwanda of asylum seekers who have entered the UK illegally is the most serious parliamentary test for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak since he took office a year ago. The debate over the bill has divided the Conservative Party. Ahead of the first vote in the House of Commons, MPs on the right wing of the Conservative Party were particularly agitated. This included the radical Brexiteers of the European Reform Group, but also the New Conservatives, most of whom come from industrial constituencies in the north of England.

Sunak came under attack from both the right and the left. The Tory right found the text too soft, while the party’s centrists and the opposition found it too radical and in danger of breaching international human rights commitments. But the bill passed its second reading on 12 December.

The purpose of the bill is to overcome the recent Supreme Court ruling that rejected the Government’s plan to send migrants arriving by boat to Rwanda. The core concern of the Supreme Court was the risk of people being sent back from Rwanda to countries where they may face persecution (refoulement). This breaches a fundamental principle enshrined in both domestic and international law, including the Refugee Convention and runs counter to the findings of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has strongly opposed the agreement.

In response, Rishi Sunak signed a new treaty with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame and drafted this new law. The legislation is designed to “unambiguously exclude the possibility of the Courts challenging Rwanda’s safe Country status and to exclude the application of certain provisions of the UK Human Rights Act to deportations.” Ministers will also be able to decide “whether or not to comply with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) measures.”

The new law on Rwanda declares the East African Country a safe third Country and makes it harder for refugees facing deportation to appeal. Two weeks ago, Sunak insisted that the vote on the law would not be a vote of confidence. In fact, on Tuesday 12 December, it was given that status. Sunak’s promise to “stop the barges” that have for several years been used by organised smugglers to bring tens of thousands of Syrians, Afghans, Indians, Pakistanis and Africans to the Channel coast illegally is essentially based on a desired deterrent effect. Some of those who arrive in England without an asylum claim are to be detained and deported to Rwanda as quickly as possible.

Human rights activists condemned the plan as “immoral, costly and inhumane”. Kagame’s government is a one-party state known for its repression of political opponents and freedom of speech. In the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of human rights in January 2021, the UK called on Rwanda to “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, disappearances, enforced disappearances and torture, and to bring those responsible to justice.”

Rishi Sunak believes the Government’s controversial Rwanda legislation is the “best thing we can get” to tackle illegal immigration, his deputy has said, signalling the Prime Minister’s reluctance to bow to pressure from mutinous Tory right-wingers. After the vote, the PM tweeted: “The British people should decide who can come to this Country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this bill does. We will now work to make it law so we can stop the flights to Rwanda and stop the boats.” But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the public divisions in the Conservative party that preceded the vote as “an ongoing Tory psychodrama that is letting the country down and it won’t stop” and called the latest Rwanda legislation “a bill that nobody believes in.”

The Prime Minister faces further dangers in the New Year, including from centrist Tory MPs who have said that any concession to the right wing could lead to the defeat of legislation. So the war over the bill is not over. After a battle over amendments, the government could face some opposition in the House of Lords. After thirteen years in power and trailing Labour by 20 points in the polls a year before the election, the Conservatives are showing their divisions more clearly than ever.

Cover image by JMundy on Shutterstock