Sunak says no Rwanda deportation flights before election as campaigns begin

A Labour victory in July 4 poll could scuttle controversial gov’t scheme that aims to send asylum seekers to the African country.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media, as heavy rain falls, outside 10 Downing Street in London Wednesday,
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says the flights would begin if he wins re-election [Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

No deportation flights to Rwanda will take place before a July 4 snap election, United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has said, meaning a Labour Party victory could stop the controversial Conservative Party scheme from ever leaving the tarmac.

Sunak made the announcement on Thursday during the first full day of campaigning. The Labour Party currently maintains a commanding 20-point lead in opinion polls and has promised to scrap the deportation plan if it wins power.

Speaking at a campaign event on Thursday, Sunak cast the policy as central to the political race. In April, he had promised the flights would take off in 10 to 12 weeks. Mass arrests of potential deportees began earlier this month.

“We’ve started detaining people … the flights are booked for July, airfields on standby, the escorts are ready, the caseworkers are churning through everything, so all that is happening, and if I’m re-elected as your prime minister, those flights will go to Rwanda,” Sunak said.

The deportation plan has been a flagship policy for Sunak since he took office in October 2022. He has continued to champion it even after the UK Supreme Court in November ruled the plan unlawful on the grounds that Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country.

In response, Sunak signed a new treaty with the East African country and passed new legislation in June to circumvent the ruling. Nevertheless, more legal challenges remain possible.

For his part, Labour leader Keir Starmer vowed earlier this month to trash the plan, which has already cost hundreds of millions of pounds, “straight away” upon taking office.

But with the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey across the Channel rising to record numbers so far in 2024, Starmer also introduced a separate plan to launch a new border enforcement unit and tap counter “terror” powers to tamp down on people smuggling.

Keir Starmer
British opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer attends a Labour general election campaign event at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham football club in Gillingham, southeast England [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Surprise announcement

Immigration is expected to be a prominent issue in the election campaigns, with the economy and the National Health Service’s record waiting times also set to loom large.

The decision to call the vote months earlier than expected came as a shock to some members of Sunak’s party, with 14 years of at times chaotic Conservative rule leaving many in the country disillusioned.

Conservatives have lagged behind the Labour Party in opinion polls since Sunak replaced former Prime Minister Liz Truss following her resignation after just 44 days in office. Some political observers have questioned the timing of Sunak’s announcement, noting there is little reason for optimism the climate will shift.

Speaking at an event in Gillingham, southeast England on Thursday, Starmer portrayed himself as the candidate who can renew, rebuild and reinvigorate the UK. He pointed to the disparity in cities like London, which house massive corporations like Google.

Referencing children who live in inner-city areas, he said, “They cannot imagine themselves ever making that journey from their school to those jobs. It’s a few hundred yards.”

Starmer is the country’s former chief prosecutor who augured the party towards the centre after it shifted farther left under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

Victory would make Starmer the sixth prime minister in eight years in the UK. The highest turnover rate since the 1830s has become emblematic to some of a period of heightened political turmoil with no end in sight.

The Rwanda deportation plan is not the only signature Sunak policy in doubt. A bill that would gradually raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes for anyone born after 2009 – effectively making it increasingly difficult for the younger generation to smoke – is also unlikely to pass before Parliament dissolves on Friday ahead of the election.

Separately on Thursday, Nigel Farage, the former face of the Brexit campaign, has said he would not seek election for the six-year-old Reform UK party.

The move could diminish the appeal of the right-wing party, which had threatened to siphon support from the Conservatives’ voter base.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies