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NIAS Europe Studies
Decoding the UK-Rwanda migration bill post supreme court ruling

  Alka Bala

The flagship Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill of Rishi Sunak, the UK Prime Minister’s aims to curb illegal immigration and gained criticism from the Supreme Court, lawmakers and few within the Tories. Some of the bill's provisions were viewed to be violating the international refugee law, the safety of Rwanda to host refugees and concerns arose over the refoulment principle and economic feasibility. 

What are the changes made to the Rwanda bill after the court proceeding?
In April 2022, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the UK and Rwanda calling for Migration and Economic Partnership to establish an asylum transfer scheme. According to it, asylum seekers arriving in the UK would be deported to Rwanda for the processing of their asylum applications and further would be settled there if the claims become successful. The UK Supreme Court raised its concerns on this scheme citing Rwanda’s poor human rights record, inadequacies in the system of asylum processing and issues regarding a potential breach of the non-refoulment principle of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In response, a new UK-Rwanda treaty signed on 05 December replaced the non-binding MoU. Addressing Supreme Court’s concerns, the treaty eliminates the potential refoulment by stating that no relocated asylum seeker from Rwanda, can be sent to any country other than the UK. The treaty promises strengthened safeguards in the asylum process through expanding powers of the monitoring committee, the creation of a new appeals court and a ‘first-instance ’ decision-making body.

The treaty was accompanied by a prospective legislation to expel safety concerns regarding Rwanda; through the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. The bill designates Rwanda as a safe country and demands similar consideration of decision-makers while transporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Within the UK court, the bill would prohibit the asylum seekers from challenging their removal to Rwanda citing “safety concerns” and refoulment. In attempts to address the Supreme Court’s concerns, the bill goes too far by excluding the Refugee Convention and the UK’s international legal obligations. Criticisms persist over the bill as it might still face legal challenges from the European Court of Human Rights, highlighting the roadblocks to smooth implementation of the scheme. Most importantly, this emergency legislation upon which the migration scheme is positioned, strains the relationship between the judiciary and the Parliament, as it limits judicial scrutiny of decisions taken by the government.

Is this policy financially feasible?
An impact assessment by the Home Office estimated an increased cost of GBP 63,000 in relocating an individual to Rwanda. The Home Office aims to eliminate the cost to the taxpayer, which would require the government to deter 37 per cent of illegal migrants arriving in the UK. Although labelled as an “imperfect tool” by Craig Mackinlay, an MP from the Conservative Party, this policy could lead to savings in the future due to its deterrent effects. Along with the costs saved on resettlement, the government would additionally save on the provision of social housing, benefits and healthcare to asylum seekers. Quoted as a  “spend to save” scheme by Mackinlay, the actual costs could exceed the estimates since the effectiveness of it is yet to be tested.

According to the Labour Party, a total of GBP 400 million would be sent to Rwanda, out of which the UK government has paid GBP 290 million and expects to pay GBP 50 million more in 2024-2025. In the scenario of migrants not being sent to Rwanda, President Paul Kagame’s statement on refunding the UK’s money comes as an assurance against the financial failure of the policy. However, the ambiguity remains as Rwanda did not mention the refundable amount or the time and later specified that it was not obligated to do so.

Does the debate in the Parliament reflect the deeper division among Tory MPs?
A Conservative rebellion was evident in the debates leading up to the third reading stage at the House of Commons where rebel Tories backed amendments to tighten the legislation, leaving no loopholes that would allow violation of provisions of international refugee law. James Cleverly, UK Home Secretary’s efforts to gather support from lawmakers in favour of the bill, stated the government’s pledge to crack down on the smuggling gangs that aid illegal migration and to revamp the current lagging asylum procedures. Calls for support have been met with criticisms of the increased expenditure of the bill, as they cite alternative uses for the proposed GBP 400 million, increasing cross-border police units and their security powers. The practical functionality of the bill is questioned, as despite paying an exorbitant amount to Rwanda, not even a single asylum seeker has been moved to the country due to legal challenges. Among the infighting, Sunak’s lead was undermined as two senior Conservative party deputy chairs Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned after leading a group of 60 Tories to vote in favour of the proposed amendments. Other rightwing rebels including Robert Jenrick, former immigration minister, and Suella Braverman former Home Secretary, along with nine other Tory MPs voted against the bill whereas 36 Tories abstained. The bill passed in the House of Commons with a majority of 44 votes. Despite statements on Sunak's failure to gather consensus among the Tories, ultimately the bill voting required the Tories to come together, as killing the bill would have resulted in the Conservative Party facing the upcoming elections with a deeply divided front lacking actionable plans to curb illegal migration.

About the Author
Ms Bala is an undergraduate scholar at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. Her areas of interest include Southeast Asia, Europe, maritime and Climate Change. 

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