28 May 2024
0 6 mins 1 mth

LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has staked his political survival on getting planes of asylum seekers off the tarmac and on their way to Rwanda. He will get it done, he vowed Monday, with the first flights airborne in “10 to 12 weeks.”

Sunak said his government has an airfield on standby, as well as commercial charters ready to go. “No ifs, no buts, these flights are going to Rwanda,” he said.

Successive British leaders have tried to make the Rwanda deportation plan happen — as a way to deter asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel, to break the business model of the smuggling gangs and to “take back control” of Britain’s borders. The issue is, not coincidentally, a big one for key target voting groups of the ruling Conservative Party.

Sunak has been desperate to claim a victory. The Conservative Party, after 14 years in power, has plummeted in the polls. Unless the political winds change, it could face a clobbering in the general election this year.

By midnight the prime minister finally got Parliament to pass his controversial Rwanda bill. The new legislation compels British judges to regard Rwanda as a safe country and gives government ministers the power to ignore emergency injunctions. Adults who arrive in Britain illegally by boat will not be allowed to remain there but will be ordered to board planes for Rwanda, which could either grant them asylum or send them on to third countries.

The legislation went ping-ponging between the House of Lords and the House of Commons for hours on Monday, until opponents in the Lords were finally worn down. To implement the law, Sunak might need to defy a human rights framework that Britain helped to create — and avoid further court challenges.

The British government has searched the world for willing partners to process asylum seekers “off shore.” Morocco, Tunisia, Namibia and Gambia all “explicitly declined,” according to leaked documents reported on by the Times of London. Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Brazil and Colombia weren’t especially interested.

Rwanda has been the only yes. Britain offered $300 million for a five-year pilot program.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson first announced the Rwanda plan in April 2022, hailing it as a new model to discourage illegal migration that would be adopted by other countries.

Johnson’s first flight attempt was blocked at the last minute by the European Court of Human Rights.

Britain’s highest court subsequently ruled that Rwanda was not a safe country for migrants, who were at risk of being sent back to their countries of origin.

So Sunak’s government wrote a new law essentially declaring that Rwanda was safe and that international protections would be upheld.

To the prime minister’s great frustration — on display at his news conference Monday at 10 Downing Street — the House of Lords delayed passage of the bill by adding amendments seeking greater guarantees.

Sunak charged that peers in the House of Lords, especially those in the opposition Labour Party, “have used every trick in the book” to attempt to stop or slow the bill from passing.

But he vowed that there would be a “regular rhythm” of planes throughout the summer and beyond.

With the announcement of a 10- to 12-week timeline for flights to start, he was moving the goal posts — earlier, he had said the flights would happen by spring. He also declined to tell reporters how many flights were planned and for how many migrants.

Special rapporteurs for the United Nations issued a statement warning commercial airlines away from the project. “Even if the UK-Rwanda agreement and the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill are approved, airlines and aviation regulators could be complicit in violating internationally protected human rights and court orders by facilitating removals to Rwanda,” they said.

Advocates for the asylum seekers will almost certainly try to block the flights again with another appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. But Sunak declared that “no foreign court will stop us from getting flights off,” setting up a potential legal brawl.

He said the Home Office, which would carry out the mission, has “200 trained dedicated case workers ready and waiting,” with extra courtrooms and judges, ready to process asylum seekers and get them onto airplanes.

Britain was one of the original signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and a founder of the European Court of Human Rights, which is independent from the European Union.

Small-boat arrivals were down by a third last year but up this year — with 6,265 so far — and on track to match the peak in 2022.

Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party in Parliament, said that “no amount of sound bites or spin can change the fact that the Conservatives’ Rwanda scheme is a colossal failure.”

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