New U.K. Asylum Bill Aims to Override Some Human Rights Law

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain on Wednesday announced plans to override his country’s top court and disregard some human rights law, gambling on emergency legislation to rescue a highly contested scheme that would put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda.

But even as the proposal drew criticism from opposition politicians, it failed to satisfy hard-liners in Mr. Sunak’s own Conservative Party, prompting the resignation of the immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, who had pressed for more sweeping measures.

The bill comes less than a month after Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that the small country of Rwanda in Central Africa was an unsafe place to send those arriving in small boats on the southern British coast, and that the government’s plan would breach British and international law.

That derailed a flagship asylum policy that Mr. Sunak has put at the center of his political agenda. And it was a significant setback to a prime minister who is struggling to revive a stagnant economy and improve his dismal opinion poll ratings ahead of an election likely to be held next year.

Under the Rwanda scheme, which was first unveiled under Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2022, asylum seekers could be flown to the African nation to have their claims heard there. Even if they were successful, however, they would not be allowed to settle in Britain, but would instead remain in Rwanda.

The proposed legislation unveiled on Wednesday declared Rwanda to be a safe country — explicitly contradicting Britain’s Supreme Court. And the first page of the bill included a statement from the home secretary, James Cleverly: “I am unable to make a statement that, in my view, the provisions of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights, but the Government nevertheless wishes the House to proceed with the Bill.”

The European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain helped draft in the aftermath of World War II, is enshrined in British legislation and underpins the Good Friday Agreement. White House officials told The New York Times last month that they were watching Mr. Sunak’s attempts to revive the Rwanda policy, in case it risked undermining the Northern Ireland peace accord.

Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer, said in a social media post that the new bill was an attempt to “change the facts” and “ignore the law.” He added, in comments to The Times, that the government wanted to prevent British courts from taking into account interim rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, but said that there was “a small slither of a chance a person could go to Rwanda before the next election.” That was because the court, which is based in Strasbourg, France, “might not act that quickly” on any challenges to it, he said.

Mr. Sunak may have been constrained from going further by the Rwandan government, whose minister for foreign affairs, Vincent Biruta, said in a statement that it was “important to both Rwanda and the U.K. that our rule of law partnership meets the highest standards of international law.” In a thinly veiled warning, he added that “without lawful behavior by the U.K., Rwanda would not be able to continue” with its agreement to accept asylum seekers from Britain.

Though the number of small-boat crossings is down around one-third from last year, they remain a highly visible symbol of the government’s failure to control Britain’s borders — a key promise of campaigners for Brexit like Mr. Sunak.

The government sees its Rwanda plan as a vital deterrent and argues that only the prospect of deportation will dissuade asylum seekers from attempting the dangerous journey across the English Channel.

But, stymied by legal challenges, the government has yet to fly a single asylum seeker to Rwanda, and the opposition Labour Party dismisses the plan as a costly and unworkable distraction from the task of stopping people smugglers and processing a huge backlog of asylum claims that has risen sharply under the Conservatives. So far, the Rwandan government has received 140 million pounds (about $175.8 million) from Britain.

Mr. Sunak is under heavy pressure to keep the Rwanda plan alive ahead of an election in which immigration is likely to be a campaigning topic for his Conservative Party.

Earlier this week, Mr. Cleverly announced new plans to curb legal immigration into Britain, which has exploded in recent years, with net migration hitting a record high of almost 750,000 people in 2022.

That spike has infuriated many on the right of the Conservative Party — particularly since Brexit gave the government the power to determine immigration numbers by ending the automatic right of citizens of the European Union to settle in Britain.

On Monday, Mr. Cleverly said that from next spring, the minimum salary needed for skilled workers arriving from abroad would rise to £38,700 from £26,200 (to about $48,600 from about $32,900), promising the biggest ever cut in net migration.

The income required for family visas will also rise to at least £38,700, meaning that lower-earning Britons will not be able to bring partners or spouses from abroad into the country. Although the full details of the policy have not been announced, it has caused anger, even among some on the political right, who have argued that allowing only wealthier people to marry non-Britons is unconservative. Other plans restricting the rights of students to bring family members into the country had already been announced and will be put in place next year.

Some employers have warned that the measures will hit the economy and damage recruitment in the health service and elder care sector, where there are acute labor shortages. But the government appears to have decided that the political stakes are higher.

On Tuesday, Mr. Cleverly flew to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to upgrade Britain’s existing agreement with the country to a formal treaty. The British government says it is helping to improve procedures in Rwanda, and has secured guarantees that even those whose asylum claims are rejected would be allowed to stay in the country.

But it was not clear whether the treaty signed on Tuesday would be enough to dispel the arguments of the Supreme Court, which had ruled that there were insufficient guarantees that refugees sent to Rwanda would not be forcibly returned to their home country, where they might be in danger.

Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has lifted millions out of extreme poverty, improved infrastructure and reduced maternal mortality. Under President Paul Kagame, the nation of 13 million people has positioned itself as a tourism hub and the site of major conferences and events, including the Commonwealth meetings and the Basketball Africa League.

But while some celebrate Mr. Kagame as a hero, rights groups accuse him of running an authoritarian state where political and civil rights remain widely limited. In October, Human Rights Watch published an extensive report detailing how the Rwandan government uses a broad range of tactics including assassinations, kidnappings, renditions and digital threats to hound critics and opposition members abroad.

In its evidence to Britain’s Supreme Court, the United Nations refugee agency highlighted flaws in Rwanda’s asylum system, including at least 100 allegations of refugees being threatened with or forcibly returned to countries where they were at risk of persecution and the widespread rejection of applications from refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

Rwanda has imprisoned and killed refugees, expelled them and, in some cases, threatened and beaten them for speaking up even after they have fled the country, according to refugees and human rights groups.

To the alarm of British moderates, hard-liners have argued that, if it proves necessary to make the Rwanda plan work, Britain should be willing to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

On Wednesday, Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who was fired by Mr. Sunak, called for a tough approach, telling lawmakers, “The Conservative Party faces electoral oblivion in a matter of months if we introduce yet another bill destined to fail.”

Stephen Castle reported from London, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *