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James Cleverly walks off the plane at at Kigali International Airport in Rwanda. He is at the bottom of a flight of stairs off of a large plane with the tail in a UK flag design
Home secretary James Cleverly travelled to Rwanda in December to sign a new treaty. Ben Birchall/Associated Press

Rwanda asylum deportation plan faces more delays – how did we get here?

The government’s goal to send a flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda this spring is looking less and less likely. The plan has been in the works, blocked by a number of legal rulings, for nearly two years. All now hinges on the passage of a bill declaring Rwanda to be a “safe” country to send asylum seekers to.

But the bill has faced yet another parliamentary hurdle in the House of Lords. The upper house passed several amendments to bring the bill in line with the refugee convention and international law. It is now due back in the House of Commons, a process known as parliamentary “ping pong”. If the bill passes, it won’t be until after Easter.

Rishi Sunak has repeatedly said that the government would like flights to take off in the spring. While it was recently reported that no flights to Rwanda would occur before mid-May, the government might now need to wait even longer due to these latest delays.

How did we get here?

In April 2022, the UK and Rwandan governments announced a migration and economic development partnership. Under this arrangement, some asylum seekers who travel to the UK irregularly (such as by small boat across the Channel) will be sent to Rwanda. There, Rwandan officials will process their protection claims. If the person is found to be a refugee, they will be resettled in Rwanda.

In exchange, the UK has agreed to pay Rwanda £370 million to support economic growth in the country. The UK will also resettle a small number of vulnerable refugees from Rwanda in the UK.

Two months after the partnership was announced, the government’s attempt to send the first plane of people to Rwanda was foiled by the courts. After a number of legal challenges, the European Court of Human Rights issued an emergency order to stop the plane taking off.

Just before Christmas 2022, the High Court (one of the senior courts of England and Wales) ruled that the policy was lawful – but this finding was later overturned. Both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court found that Rwanda was not a “safe” country to send asylum seekers to.

In particular, judges raised concerns about Rwanda’s domestic legal system, and the extent to which it would make accurate and fair decisions about whether a person was a refugee.

Because of this, both courts found that people sent to Rwanda were at risk of refoulement – that is, being sent back to their home country where they might be tortured, persecuted or killed. Non-refoulement is a key principle in the refugee convention and is recognised in UK law.

Read more: Why UK court ruled Rwanda isn't a safe place to send refugees – and what this means for the government's immigration plans

Resurrecting the Rwanda plan

Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the government doubled down. It has taken a number of desperate steps to try and bypass the courts, making it legal to send people to Rwanda for asylum processing and resettlement.

The government signed a new treaty with Rwanda, requiring Rwanda to process claims in accordance with the refugee convention and provide refugees with support and accommodation. Rwanda’s commitments under this treaty are binding under international law.

In September and November last year, the Home Office held training days for Rwandan government officials, lawyers and judges on refugee law and effective asylum decision-making.

Most significantly, the government introduced the safety of Rwanda (asylum and immigration) bill. This requires every immigration officer, tribunal and court in the UK to treat Rwanda as a safe country. By declaring in law that Rwanda is safe, the government is hoping to prevent courts from ruling against its policy.

The bill also says that courts and tribunals must ignore any emergency orders made by the European Court of Human Rights to prevent a person being removed to Rwanda.

The House of Lords opposed many of these provisions as contrary to the domestic and international rule of law. The Lords have repeatedly pushed back on the Rwanda plan, but appear unlikely to try and block the bill altogether. It has now been sent back to the House of Commons for further debate.

What happens if the bill passes?

Even if the legislation is passed, the Rwanda plan will likely be subject to another round of legal challenges. We can expect these to focus on whether or not the government can pass a law that overrides the courts on whether Rwanda is safe. Legal experts have expressed serious concerns about the legislation, suggesting it could even trigger a “constitutional crisis”.

Courts might also be asked to consider whether the government’s efforts to ensure Rwanda’s safety (such as signing a new treaty and training Rwandan officials) are sufficient to overcome the problems previously identified with the policy.

Read more: How the bill to declare Rwanda a 'safe' country for refugees could lead to a constitutional crisis

Even if the bill somehow avoids legal hurdles, there are still questions of logistics, capacity and cost. In addition to the £370 million being paid to Rwanda to support economic growth, the UK will also pay it £151,000 for every person relocated.

Currently, Rwanda only has capacity to accept up to 200 asylum seekers at a time from the UK. This pales in comparison to the 29,437 people who crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2023. Many people who travel to the UK on small boats are found to be refugees.

Under the Illegal Migration Act, passed in 2023, anyone who travels to the UK irregularly will never have their asylum claim considered by the government. These people, if not sent to Rwanda, will likely be trapped in legal limbo in the government’s “perma-backlog” of asylum applications.

Politically, the government is staking a lot on this plan. But it also needs a plan for the thousands of asylum seekers who will not be removed to Rwanda.

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