UK migrants Rwanda
Migrants travel in an inflatable boat across the English Channel, bound for Dover on the south coast of England. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on April 22, 2024, promised to begin deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda in coming months as part of a plan to deter arrivals that has sparked controversy. Image Credit: AFP

Strasbourg: Europe’s highest rights body on Tuesday called on Britain to scrap a controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, saying it raised “major issues” over their rights and the rule of law.

Britain’s parliament on Monday passed a bill under which asylum seekers would be deported to Rwanda to await a decision on their applications, in a bid by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stop people making the dangerous sea crossing to the UK across the Channel.

“The United Kingdom government should refrain from removing people under the Rwanda policy and reverse the bill’s effective infringement of judicial independence,” said the Council of Europe’s (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights, Michael O’Flaherty.

O’Flaherty said the legislation “raises major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law more generally”.

Britain is one of 46 members of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights.

As such, the country is bound by rulings of the European Court of Human rights (ECHR), which is part of the Council of Europe and upholds the Convention.

In June 2022, the ECHR issued a so-called interim measure blocking an initial bid by the UK to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda, infuriating the British Conservative government.

O’Flaherty expressed concern the new legislation risked moving people to Rwanda “without any prior assessment of their asylum claims by the UK authorities in the majority of cases”.

He also warned that the bill significantly prevents UK courts from fully and independently scrutinising “the issues brought before them”.

‘Binding measures’

The Rwanda scheme - criticised by United Nations human rights experts and groups supporting asylum seekers - has been beset by legal challenges since it was first proposed in 2022.

Lawyers of asylum seekers could again go to the ECHR - a court of last instance whose verdicts are not subject to appeal - to win an interim measure in a last-minute bid to stop flights taking off.

The measure is an urgent ruling handed down only when the ECHR deems there is imminent risk of irreparable harm to a plaintiff.

British Conservatives have grumbled that the rulings are “pyjama injunctions” issued at anti-social hours but CoE sources insist they are issued in full compliance with the ECHR’s statutes.

Sunak on Monday reaffirmed in London that he would not let “a foreign court... block us from getting flights up”.

“If it ever comes to a choice between our national security and securing our borders and membership of a foreign court, I am of course always going to prioritise our national security,” he said.

While ECHR rulings are binding for CoE members, there have been problems over compliance in cases regarding some members in recent years.

Turkey has repeatedly defied rulings ordering the release of prisoners whose domestic trials were ruled as unfair.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has vowed to defy an ECHR ruling ordering the return to France of an Uzbek citizen accused by French authorities of being an Islamist radical.

O’Flaherty lamented that the UK legislation gives authority to a UK minister to decide whether to comply with ECHR interim measures, even though “such measures are binding”.

“Failure to comply with them undermines the right to individual petition guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said.