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The UK's 'Rwanda' immigration bill, explained

March 21, 2024
topic:Refugees and Asylum
tags:#United Kingdom, #Rwanda, #asylum seekers, #refugees, #protests
located:United Kingdom, Rwanda
by:Anton McDonald
As the controversial bill faces ongoing hurdles in Parliament, the lives of asylum seekers in the UK hangs in the balance.

On 18 March 2024, the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill passed its 3rd reading in  the House of Lords in UK Parliament. Once given Royal Assent, following a consideration of amendments, it would be enacted into law. However, during this final stage, the legislation faced further setbacks due to contentious amendments and is expected to be passed back through both houses of Parliament once again in a process described as 'ping-ponging.'

This legislation serves to prevent further legal challenges against the government's Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP); a policy to relocate refugees and asylum seekers who enter the UK via ‘unauthorised journeys’ to Rwanda. 

In response to backlash from right-wing Conservative MPs towards Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, emergency legislation was proposed to bypass protections like the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). This move came after the Supreme Court found the MEDP illegal, citing the risk of persecution for those repatriated.

In January 2024, Sunak announced that a general election was likely to take place in the second half of the year, giving him time to "keep tackling illegal migration."

As it is believed that the Conservatives have gained a reputation of political failure, it may be that efforts to tackle immigration and implement the MEDP, otherwise known as the Rwanda scheme, could be an attempt to claim some political victory, mitigate a revolt within the party and retain votes.

This approach, however, is not a new tactic for the party and has been under development for a while.

British exit and the hostile environment

In 2016, the UK voted on an EU referendum as a result of a Conservative party key pledge in the 2015 general election. Immigration was a dominating factor, as most evidently seen by Reform UK, founded by outwardly rightwing political party UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage. 

Arguably, Conservative party leader David Cameron utilised this campaign strategy to manage opinion within the party and secure votes from the anti-EU electorate, leading them to a surprising victory. Secured only by 51.9 per cent, the UK voted to leave the EU, resulting in Cameron resigning. Though this result was not solely motivated by rightwing sentiment, immigration was a significant factor.

Cameron’s successor, Theasa May, was already tough on immigration as Home Secretary and orchestrated the 'hostile environment. Advertising vans stating 'go home or face arrest,' were testament to the political discourse at the time.

This was then followed by the exposé of the windrush scandal, where thousands of Afro-Caribbean UK citizens were deemed illegal immigrants and resulted in illegal deportations, with many more at threat of a similar fate. Despite a compensation scheme being introduced in response to the scandal, it is reported that it 'continues to fail' those affected.

New governments, new problems

In 2019, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and appointed rightwing 'poster girl' Priti Patel as Home Secretary. Patel introduced a points-based system that tightened visa application criteria such as salary threshold, academic qualifications and the ability to speak English.

She claimed the new system would attract "the brightest and best," but in reality it had a detrimental impact on the workforce and gave human traffickers new opportunities, which was echoed in a government report that warned of increased dangerous channel crossings. 

Going further, Patel published new reforms which included offshore processing. 192 organisations responded with a public statement condemning the plan, describing it as "vague, unworkable, cruel and potentially unlawful." Her legal adviser later apologised on her behalf after a High Court judge found it "extremely troubling."

In June 2021, reports of severe conditions within asylum seekers' housing, including hotels and former military barracks, resulted in a High Court decision that deemed the Home Office's practices illegal due to the substantial risk of harm and death. Despite hotels still constituting the bulk of such accommodations at a daily cost of around £8 million, living conditions are described as 'dire,' with many individuals subsisting on just £1.37 per day.

The death of 27 people attempting to cross the Channel to the UK in September 2021 served as a stark reminder of the importance in establishing safe routes. But even using designated means proved difficult, as seen by Ukrainian refugees turned away in March 2022. Thousands who have resided in the UK have since become homeless due to "insufficient support."

At a time when the nuanced attitudes toward refugees were being unpacked following the war in Ukraine, the UK government's plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was announced

From bad to worse

Following Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister, Patel was replaced by Suella Braverman in October 2022. The latter soon made her position on immigration clear: sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was her "dream" and an "obsession."

In April 2022, a legal challenge was announced against the scheme by representatives of human rights and refugee charities. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considered the deportations unlawful, a UK High Court judge permitted the first flight to go ahead. However, this was blocked at the last minute by the ECHR, which stated it would violate international law. 

The Nationality and Borders Act of 2022 was implemented during this period. Despite the Home Secretary's assertions that it would enhance "safe and legal routes," she later confessed to the absence of such pathways. The law in fact penalises 'irregular' entry methods, rendering them 'inadmissible' under the Illegal Migration Act of 2023, effectively denying individuals the legal right to seek asylum.

Controversy continued in April 2023, as Braverman unveiled plans to house hundreds of asylum seekers on a floating barge which had previously been condemned by human rights organisations following deaths during a similar use in the Netherlands. The plan received opposition over both safety concerns and ethical grounds.

The barge started being utilised in August 2023 but was quickly evacuated due to an outbreak of Legionella Bacteria, which can be deadly. This incident led to renewed demands for its shutdown, though it was subsequently reopened. One individual later committed suicide, having felt 'treated like an animal,' spotlighting the heightened risk of self-harm among occupants if conditions on the barge do not ameliorate.

In March 2024, notable and contentious right-wing Conservative Lee Anderson switched allegiance to Reform UK, a move predicted to significantly impact the forthcoming general election and reminiscent of the 2015 general election dynamics. During his announcement, he proclaimed, "I want my country back," and firmly stated he would not apologise for his stating that "Islamists" have "got control" of London and its Mayor, Sadiq Khan.

Changing the tide

Despite a prevailing anti-immigration sentiment in political circles, the Rwanda scheme does not have unanimous support. In the House of Commons, more than 40 per cent of MPs from various opposition parties voted against the legislation during its second and third readings.

In the subsequent legislative procedure, Prime Minister Sunak faced his largest defeat when the House of Lords voted against the legislation. Amendments were introduced to align the policy with domestic and international law, opening the door to additional legal challenges to the practice of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.

One report by the Migration Observatory found that while 52 per cent of the public felt that numbers of immigrants should be reduced, the concern has depleted since the EU referendum.

This decline is further evidenced by data highlighting that the economy and health are the two predominant concerns facing the country. This perspective is reinforced by findings from the UK's largest independent statistics producer, which concluded that immigration does not rank among the top five most pressing issues.

Meanwhile, UK-based NGOs, charities and mutual aid groups continue to support migrants in need and advocate on their behalf. 

Speaking to FairPlanet, Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) explained their "three-pronged approach" to fighting for the rights of migrants. Their legal team provides critical legal aid while an advocacy team pressures parliament and challenges UK policy and their communications team educates the public by unpacking demonising misinformation. 

"People coming here seeking sanctuary should be welcomed and housed in our communities," he said, adding that he views it as a collective duty.

Their work, as Muthiah confirmed, has successfully brought families back together, prevented those granted asylum from becoming homeless and helped victims of human trafficking restart their lives. 

"We have an obligation under international law to accept our share of those seeking asylum," he added. He contended that deeming a third country safe does not absolve the UK government of its responsibilities, and said that the JCWI will continue to exert pressure on them to honour their obligations.

Care4Calais (C4C), which provides vital support services to those on the move in France and Belgium, also hold the government to account. 

"We took [the UK government] to court, and we won," CEO Steve Smith told FairPlanet. Although the policy wasn’t abandoned altogether, he highlighted, it nonetheless suffered a major setback, which gave some relief to those at risk of deportation. 

"The trauma the policy has already caused is shocking," Smith explained. He added that C4C volunteers often hear horrific stories of self-harm and attempted suicides due to being given deportation notices. For him, the solution is simple: "listen to the Supreme Court, respect its judgement and confine [the] brutal Rwanda plan to history."

Other initiatives focus on providing psychological support. SOAS Detainee Support (SDS), for instance, sees friendship and mutual aid as a means of practical solidarity to maintain mental health and wellbeing for those in immigration detention. 

SDS told FairPlanet that they believe it is their duty to break the isolation of incarceration, which they regard as a method of state violence that is inherent within the UK border system. Their understanding goes further, however; "We see the links between austerity’s destruction of public services, and a global system of capitalist and colonial extraction and exploitation that has forcibly displaced millions through conflict, climate crisis, and poverty," the NGO explained. 

For SDS, those affected become caught up in "state-inflicted harm," as reported through The Brook House Inquiry, as well as inhumane conditions seen at Harmondsworth, Yarl’s Wood and Manston detention centres. 

Since the policy was announced, SDS has collaborated with other grassroots groups to organise mass demonstrations outside detention centres and express solidarity with those inside. One demonstration in 2022 was reportedly attended by hundreds of people, with many holding banners, chanting and singing.

While they believe that the state will ultimately expand its repression, SDS members vow to continue to respond by forging new pathways to resist and support one another, centering the experiences of those in detention and under threat of deportation, according to the organisation.

Another noteworthy initiative tackling htis issue is the Anti-Raids Network, which provides information and legal support in local communities, intervenes with immigration raids and supports those subject to police harassment. One widely reported example of this was in 2021 during Eid al-Fitr, when hundreds of protesters surrounded an immigration enforcement vehicle, forcing police to release two men they had detained.

Airlines involvements in the Rwanda scheme have also been successfully targeted by activists, as seen by Freedom From Torture, who pressured Privilage Style, Titan and Airtanker airlines to withdraw from participating. Some efforts to halt individual deportation flights have also been successful, as evidenced by the roadblock against the initial flight to Rwanda and the blocking of an airport runway.

These are but a few highlights in a range of strategies employed to counteract the increasingly hostile political climate towards immigrants and refugees in the UK over the past decade. And while the implementation of the new legislation remains to be seen, reports indicate that proposals are being considered to incentivise asylum seekers with £3000 to opt for 'voluntary' deportation to Rwanda.

However, the government must first finalise and enact the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, and its implementation rests on the final amendments that are currently being made and are expected to bounce back and forth between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The Rwanda policy and the future of UK asylum therefore remain uncertain. 

Image by Mike Ruane.

Article written by:
Anton McDonald
United Kingdom Rwanda
In 2016, the UK voted on an EU referendum as a result of a Conservative party key pledge in the 2015 general election. Immigration was a dominating factor.
© Mike Ruane
In 2016, the UK voted on an EU referendum as a result of a Conservative party key pledge in the 2015 general election. Immigration was a dominating factor.
The death of 27 people attempting to cross the Channel to the UK in September 2021 served as a stark reminder of the importance in establishing safe routes.
© Mike Ruane
The death of 27 people attempting to cross the Channel to the UK in September 2021 served as a stark reminder of the importance in establishing safe routes.