LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak sought to rally support from his divided lawmakers on Tuesday before he faced a crunch parliamentary vote on his flagship migration policy of sending asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Britain to Rwanda.
Sunak is seeking to revive his plan after the UK Supreme Court ruled last month that it would breach British and international law to send those arriving in small boats on England’s southern coast to Rwanda as it was an unsafe place.
He has since agreed a new treaty with Rwanda and brought forward emergency legislation to override domestic and international human rights law which would stop deportations.
But the move has deeply divided his Conservative Party, alienating both moderates, who are worried about Britain breaching its human rights obligations, and those on the right wing who contend it does not go far enough. Defeat in Tuesday’s vote could put his premiership in jeopardy.
“The test of this policy is not ‘is it the strongest bill we’ve done?’. It’s not ‘is it a good compromise?’. It’s ‘will it work?’ That is all the public care about,” Robert Jenrick, who quit as immigration minister last week saying the bill was too weak, told parliament.
WHY WAS IT INTRODUCED?: The UK Supreme Court on November 15 upheld a lower court ruling that Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees.
It said there were “substantial grounds” to believe Kigali could forcibly return asylum seekers and refugees to places where they could face persecution.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?: Sunak promised to introduce emergency legislation to address the concerns of the court, and a new treaty legally binding in international law.
Interior minister James Cleverly signed the treaty with Rwanda’s foreign minister Vincent Biruta on December 4.
It promises not to return people to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger, and sets up a new oversight body to hear individual appeals.
The government published the bill on December 7.
WHY IS IT CONTROVERSIAL? Human rights groups and legal experts say the bill proposes overriding any laws that will prevent a migrant from being deported, and compelling courts and tribunals to treat Rwanda as a “safe country”.
It also orders the courts to ignore other British laws or international rules, such as the International Refugee Convention, that prevent deportations to Rwanda.
Ministers would be allowed to ignore any emergency order from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to temporarily halt a flight to Rwanda while an individual case is still being considered.
WHY ARE RIGHT-WINGERS UNHAPPY?: Tory hardliners want the legislation to go even further by overriding the entire UK Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the UN refugee convention and all other international law.
They believe the bill would delay the deportation of migrants by allowing them to challenge their deportation to Rwanda on specific individual grounds if they can prove that it would leave them at real risk of serious harm.
Migrants would then be able to appeal those claims, leading to further delays.
WHAT IF IT PASSES?: Even if the bill passes in its current form, there may well be further court challenges.
The Supreme Court said in its ruling that evidence cast doubt on Rwanda’s “practical ability to fulfil its assurances, at least in the short term”, to fix “deficiencies” in its asylum system and to see through “the scale of the changes in procedure, understanding and culture which are required”.
The opposition Labour Party, widely tipped to win the UK next general election, has pledged to scrap the policy if it takes power.
In power for 13 years and trailing the opposition Labour Party by around 20 points with an election expected next year, Sunak’s Conservatives have fractured along multiple lines and lost much of their discipline.
Lawmakers on the right, who have not said whether they will abstain or vote against the bill, want to ban asylum seekers from having any legal means to appeal against deportation, after the European Court of Human Rights approved an injunction to block the first Rwandan flight last year.
Opening the parliamentary debate on the bill, Home Secretary James Cleverly said the legislation was “pushing at the edge of envelope” on international law and could go no further.
“Parliament and the British people want an end to illegal immigration and they support the Rwanda plan,” he said.
Governments around the world are also closely watching the UK plan to see if it will work as they too grapple with rising migration levels. French lawmakers rejected their immigration bill last night, in a blow to President Emmanuel Macron.
The British parliament will hold its first vote on the emergency law on Tuesday evening, and it would only take about 30 Conservative lawmakers to vote with opposition parties for the government to lose.
Defeat would be a huge embarrassment for Sunak - no government has lost a vote at this early stage in the parliamentary process since 1986. It would severely weaken his authority and raise serious questions about his leadership, given that he has staked so much on the policy.
Even if it passes, Sunak is likely to face attempts to toughen it up with amendments at later stages, as well as opposition in the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber.
Such is the government concern that Britain’s climate minister was recalled to London from the COP28 summit in Dubai to cast a vote in parliament.
Sunak also hosted some right-wing Conservative lawmakers for breakfast on Tuesday in a last ditch attempt to convince them to back the bill, after centrist lawmakers said they would support it as long as the law was not further toughened up.
Those who met Sunak said the prime minister had hinted the bill could be amended at a later stage.
Sunak is Britain’s fifth Conservative prime minister in seven years after the vote to leave the European Union polarised politics, leading to repeated bouts of instability.
The battle has echoes of parliamentary showdowns over Brexit from 2017-19, when then Prime Minister Theresa May suffered repeated defeats following rebellions by large numbers of Conservative politicians, eventually leading to her exit.
The Conservatives have repeatedly failed to meet targets to reduce immigration, which has soared even after Brexit stripped EU citizens of the right of free movement, with legal net immigration reaching 745,000 last year.
About 29,000 asylum seekers have arrived this year via boats - down around one-third compared with last year - but the sight of small inflatable dinghies crossing the Channel remains a highly visible symbol of the government’s failure to control Britain’s borders - a key promise of Brexit campaigners.
Hours before the vote, a refugee charity reported that an asylum seeker had died on a barge off the south coast which houses migrants waiting for a decision on their applications.
Keir Starmer, the opposition Labour leader, promised his party would revoke the policy if he gets into power.
“It’ll go through tonight, I don’t doubt, with a lot of shouting and screaming but in the end it’ll go through,” he said, but added Sunak should call an election should he lose.
Britain has already paid 240 million pounds ($300 million) to Rwanda even though no one has yet been sent there. Even if the programme gets off the ground, Rwanda would have the capacity to settle only hundreds of migrants from Britain at a time.