The UK Parliament has voted to approve Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s controversial immigration legislation to send some asylum seekers arriving in the UK to Rwanda for processing.
The bill passed by a narrow margin of 318 to 256 votes after Sunak made a last-minute appeal to rebel MPs in his Conservative party to support the legislation. However, several high-profile Conservatives still voted against the bill or abstained, underlining divisions within the party over the policy.
The legislation will now move to the House of Lords, where it faces opposition and tighter margins. Sunak has urged peers to promptly pass the bill, but observers say amendments and ping-ponging between the houses could significantly delay any first deportation flights to Rwanda.
The Rwanda asylum plan aims to curb dangerous small-boat crossings over the English Channel through the threat of deporting those arriving illegally to the East African nation for asylum screening.
The UK signed an initial £120 million deal with Rwanda last April when Boris Johnson was prime minister. The first deportation flight was scheduled in June 2022 but halted last-minute by an interim injunction from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Upon becoming prime minister, Sunak vowed to stick with the policy despite legal obstacles and political opposition. The current legislation seeks to overcome court barriers by setting out how Rwanda meets human rights standards for processing asylum claims.
What The New Law Does
- Specifies Rwanda as a “safe third country”, allowing the UK to send asylum seekers there while claims are assessed
- Aims to bypass ECHR injunctions over rights concerns in Rwanda
- Strengthens powers around determining and detaining those eligible for deportation
- Lays groundwork needed for flights to begin, pending final legal clearance
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the law change delivers on the “clear will of the British people” by taking back control of borders. She insisted Rwanda is safe, with a track record of welcoming and integrating migrants.
Votes And Reaction
The razor-thin victory came only after Sunak offered concessions to placate Conservative rebels. This included recommitting to an overall cap on refugee numbers and exploring an expanded scheme sending asylum seekers to third countries.
Former Tory leader William Hague said the vote exposed Sunak’s weakness, with his authority “hanging by a thread”. Opposition parties also lined up to condemn the “shameful” and “disgusting” bill.
Amnesty International said efforts to “outsource responsibility” erodes asylum rights and protections. Human rights groups maintain Rwanda still has major democracy and civil liberty issues.
What Happens Next?
All eyes turn to the House of Lords and whether opponents there can frustrate the bill’s progress with amendments or procedural delays. Options include:
- Amending the bill’s scope or provisions
- Demanding more evidence Rwanda meets rights standards
- Requiring further Home Office impact assessments
Lords scrutiny could send the bill bouncing back to the Commons repeatedly before it becomes law. Sunak urged peers not to “stand in the way” but said he expects “some back and forth”.
If the bill clears parliament, Home Office guidance says initial deportation candidates include single men arriving illegally via small boats or lorries. However, the first flights still require clearance from British courts which previously grounded the policy.
Conservative MPs warn the Rwanda plan risks becoming “unworkable” if ensnared in perpetual legal challenges. Opponents may look to use ongoing case reviews to obstruct flights later this year.
Groups have also raised local tensions around hosting asylum seekers in Rwanda. And leaked UK foreign office documents last year suggested UK officials always had concerns about rights, cost and integration challenges there.
Nevertheless, Sunak was emboldened by narrowly winning the Commons vote. He hopes the bill will demonstrate his grip on authority while delivering the “fair border controls” promised to voters.
Polls show a majority of the British public back the Rwanda policy amid record arrivals and a broken asylum system at home. But delivering actual deportation flights still faces high political and legal hurdles.
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