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Stormy seas ahead: UK’s controversial Rwanda asylum plan faces moral and legal challenges

Rwanda Asylum Policy, UK Supreme Court, Legal Challenges, Human Rights, Immigration Reform, Cross-Channel Migration, International Law, Government Strategy, Political Debate, Refugee Crisis

The UK government’s contentious plan to send cross-Channel asylum seekers to Rwanda has been a subject of intense debate and legal scrutiny. Despite the Supreme Court’s declaration of the policy as unlawful and Rwanda as unsafe, the government remains steadfast in its pursuit, evident in the recent treaty between Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta.

This new agreement aims to circumvent the Court’s objections, notably including a clause against the refoulement, or return, of failed asylum seekers to countries where they might face danger. The UK government also appears to be stating that they can changes the law to state Rwanda is safe, even if this is not the case.

Originally introduced 20 months ago, the Rwanda scheme has faced considerable legal and moral challenges. In response to a Supreme Court ruling that deemed the scheme illegal, the government has proposed a new ‘Safety of Rwanda Bill’, which would legally oblige judges to recognise Rwanda as a safe country for asylum seekers and allow the government to sidestep certain UK human rights laws. This move has sparked unease among many oppositional MPs and outright criticism from others on the right who think more needs to be done, including former immigration minister Robert Jenrick and ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

The central contradiction of the Rwanda policy lies in its self-defeating nature. International and domestic laws stipulate that the removal of asylum seekers to a third country must not put them at a disadvantage, yet the policy’s intended deterrent effect requires the opposite. Critics view the plan as a flawed strategy that has evolved into a complex issue, costing the government a reported £240 million without yielding practical results, and more bills to come.

In tandem with the Rwanda policy, the government has introduced measures to reduce net migration by tightening visa regulations. Changes include increased salary thresholds for skilled foreign workers, restrictions on care workers bringing dependants, and raised earnings requirements for British citizens or UK residents wishing to bring overseas partners to the country. Home Secretary Cleverly estimates that these measures could cut legal migration by up to 300,000 people annually.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill raises several legal and constitutional questions. The Bill responds to the Supreme Court’s ruling against the Rwanda policy, focusing on the non-refoulement principle—a cornerstone of international law and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It controversially mandates courts to treat Rwanda as a safe country regardless of evidence to the contrary and limits judicial review concerning Rwanda’s safety.

While domestic legal challenges against the Bill are significantly restricted, it does not entirely preclude them. Courts may still issue declarations of incompatibility with the ECHR, though this would not affect the validity of the Rwanda policy under domestic law. However, the Bill’s constitutional implications are profound, potentially testing the boundaries between parliamentary sovereignty and judicial authority.

Internationally, the UK remains bound by its obligations under the ECHR and other treaties, regardless of the Bill’s domestic stance. Thus, the policy may still face challenges in the European Court of Human Rights. The government’s approach highlights a paradox: expecting Rwanda to honor its international obligations while the UK appears ready to breach its own.

This dilemma is further compounded by recent financial commitments. The UK has allocated an additional £100 million this year to support the Rwanda deal, with more funding anticipated. This revelation, coming after the resignation of Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick and amid ongoing legal challenges, adds to the controversy surrounding the policy’s efficacy and transparency.

The UK government has estimated the cost of sending someone to a safe country – not specifically Rwanda – is £169,000, compared to £106,000 if they remain in the UK.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak remains committed to the Rwanda plan, urging Conservative MPs to support the new legislation, which faces opposition within the party. The legislation, aiming to curtail the “merry-go-round of legal challenges” and expedite the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, is a critical component of the government’s broader strategy to control illegal migration and reduce public spending on migrant accommodation.

Opponents of the plan, however, are many, including Action on Armed Violence. Dr. Iain Overton of AOAV critically views the UK’s new Rwanda asylum plan as fundamentally flawed. He argues, ‘This policy not only undermines the very essence of the rule of law but also rests on a precarious foundation. Proclaiming Rwanda as a safe haven while simultaneously barring journalists and human rights reporters like myself from verifying these claims on the ground is deeply troubling. Such restrictions on independent verification raise serious questions about the transparency and credibility of these assurances.’

In addition, there is the fact that many of those crossing on small boats are fleeing violence.

Of the 3,793 migrants detected crossing the English channel in small boats, 63% (2,380) come from countries which were among the fifteen globally worst impacted for civilian casualties from the use of explosive weapons in 2022, new data analysis by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) revealed last June

In the first quarter of 2023, the Home Office’s provisional ‘Statistics relating to the Illegal Migration Bill,’ released on April 24, 2023, recorded 3,793 migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats. Among these, the majority originated from five countries: Afghanistan (24% or 909), India (18% or 675), Iran (14% or 524), Iraq (9% or 345), and Syria (8% or 286). Notably, Afghanistan and Syria, the top two sources of these migrants, were also the second and third most afflicted nations in terms of civilian harm from explosive weapons in 2022, following Ukraine. Meanwhile, Iraq and India, contributing a significant number of migrants as well, were ranked seventh and eleventh respectively in terms of countries worldwide where civilians were most impacted by explosive violence. It could be argued that sending such refugees to Rwanda is both cruel and legally suspect.

In conclusion, the UK’s Rwanda asylum policy and the accompanying Safety of Rwanda Bill represent a complex and contentious issue. Balancing legal, constitutional, and international obligations with political objectives and public sentiment, the government’s approach to asylum seekers and migration continues to evoke debate and scrutiny.