British PM Sunak defends plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

Growing backlash among Conservative MPs after government published emergency legislation on Rwanda plan.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts a press conference inside the Downing Street Briefing Room, in central London, on December 7, 2023 [James Manning / POOL / AFP]
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hosts a news conference inside the Downing Street Press Briefing Room, in central London, on December 7, 2023 [James Manning/Pool via AFP]

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has defended his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a day after his immigration minister resigned over “strong disagreements with the direction” of the government’s immigration policy.

Sunak appealed to his Conservative MPs on Thursday to unite behind the plan as the issue left his party in disarray.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick resigned after the government published emergency legislation aimed at allowing the controversial Rwanda deportation scheme to move forward, saying the bill did not go far enough.

The “Safety of Rwanda Bill” is designed to overcome a November 15 ruling by the UK Supreme Court that found the government’s proposed scheme to send thousands of asylum seekers and migrants to the East African nation to be unlawful.

Sunak’s former Interior Minister Suella Braverman said the law was destined to fail, and urged the prime minister to change course on immigration – a major political battleground in next year’s expected general election.

At a hastily convened news conference in Downing Street, the prime minister sought to appease right-wing Tories who want him to withdraw Britain from the European Court of Human Rights, to stop courts blocking removals.

Sunak is expected to face a vote on the bill next week but denies it will be a confidence vote on his leadership.

Some Conservative members of Parliament said for the first time since Sunak entered office a year ago there was a possibility he could face a leadership challenge.

“This bill blocks every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights to Rwanda from taking off,” Sunak told reporters.

“The only extremely narrow exception will be if you can prove with credible and compelling evidence that you specifically have a real and imminent risk of serious and irreversible harm.”

The bill compels judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country and proposes giving UK ministers powers to disregard sections of human rights legislation.

The proposals have sparked fresh concerns from opposition parties and human rights groups while Rwanda warned it would withdraw from a bilateral treaty signed only on Tuesday if the UK does not respect international law.

Sunak asserted the primacy of the UK Parliament on the issue and also said he would not allow a “foreign court” to dictate what Britain could do.

“This bill will work… we will get flights off the ground, we will deter illegal migrants from coming here and we will finally stop the boats,” he added.

‘Electoral oblivion’

The issue is widening schisms in an already heavily fractured Tory party that has served up four prime ministers in just over four years.

The divisions between right-wingers and moderates have worsened since Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016, largely on a promise to “take back control” of its borders.

Braverman, sacked by Sunak last month after several incendiary comments, has warned that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the Rwanda bill fails.

Sunak ducked a question about whether he would call an early election – which must be held by January 2025 – if he loses the vote, as some Westminster watchers are speculating.

“I want to finish the job. Finishing the job means getting this legislation on the statute book,” he added.

Sunak has bet his pledge to “stop the boats” on the Rwanda scheme, which has been stuck in the courts since the first deportees were pulled off a flight at the last minute in June 2022 after an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

Almost 30,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Channel from northern France in rudimentary vessels this year.

Sunak is also under pressure to crack down on record levels of regular migration. Data released last month showed that 745,000 more people arrived in the UK last year than left.

The prime minister on Thursday replaced ex-Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick with two ministers – one for “illegal migration” and one for “legal migration”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies