Rwanda bill: Rishi Sunak's plan burns bridges with endangered Afghan allies

Government's deportation plan eventually passed through Parliament in early hours

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Afghans who worked for the British during the war against the Taliban have “no hope for the future” if they are to be part of the Rwanda deportation, a former military interpreter has told The National.

The Afghan, who worked for special forces including the SAS, said friends who had paid up to $15,000 to leave as economic migrants were “deeply fearful” about being sent to the African country.

The UK government had indicated that Afghans would be among the first on the deportation flights to Rwanda, even if they served the UK during its operations in Afghanistan, mainly in Helmand province.

However, a Home Office minister later confirmed the government would not send those eligible under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy to Rwanda.

“Afghans have the same worries as the other refugees because they're going to be moving to a country where they have no hope for the future,” said the Afghan source, who worked for the British from 2006 to 2014.

“They are worried, of course, because they're going to be going to a country where they don't have strong rights as they have currently in the UK.”

He said some had spent $15,000 to get to Britain to “establish a new life” with their families and to flee the oppressive Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

A bill paving the way for the Rwanda scheme finally cleared parliament just after midnight on Tuesday, after hours of debate and months of delay.

Speaking after the vote, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said “nothing will stand in our way” of getting flights off the ground.

“We introduced the Rwanda Bill to deter vulnerable migrants from making perilous crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs who exploit them.

“The passing of this legislation will allow us to do that and make it very clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay.

“Our focus is to now get flights off the ground and I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives.”

His comments came as five migrants, including a seven-year-old girl, died in a failed attempt to cross the English Channel early on Tuesday.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said the Bill would “prevent people from abusing the law by using false human rights claims to block removals”.

“And it makes clear that the UK Parliament is sovereign, giving government the power to reject interim blocking measures imposed by European courts.

“I promised to do what was necessary to clear the path for the first flight. That's what we have done.

“Now we're working day in and day out to get flights off the ground.”

Will Britain ever send asylum seekers to Rwanda?

The government has said preparations for the first flights to Rwanda will begin within days, with asylum seekers who could be relocated being identified and potentially detained.

Charter planes are expected to leave for Rwanda in 10-12 weeks, with Mr Sunak promising “multiple flights a month”, although ministers conceded numbers being sent to Kigali will initially be small.

About £290 million has already been committed to the Rwanda scheme, with a further £100 million earmarked over the next two years.

The cost of putting each migrant on a plane is expected to reach £11,000, while Rwanda will get £20,000 for each asylum seeker relocated there and a £120 million top-up once 300 have arrived.

Mr Sunak has insisted he will not let the European Court of Human Rights block flights to Rwanda.

Mr Sunak declined to give details on number of people expected to leave on flights to Rwanda but said there would be a “regular rhythm” of “multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond”.

“To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days.

“The Strasbourg court has amended their Rule-39 procedures in line with the test set out in our Illegal Migration Act,” said Mr Sunak ahead of the vote.

“No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off.”

Inside a refugee camp in Rwanda

Rwanda Thumbnail

How will it work?

Under the plan, which was announced by Boris Johnson's government in 2022, the government will send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed there.

They would be granted refugee status with permission to stay in Rwanda or be eligible to apply on other grounds to stay.

They could also seek asylum in another “safe” country but they cannot return to Britain.

The deportation deal is the centrepiece of a government effort to curb a surge in migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats and claiming asylum, by acting as a deterrent to prospective migrants.

Why has it taken so long to introduce?

The government struggled to get the first flight off the ground after an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, which issued last-minute injunctions to stop the move in the summer of 2022.

In December of that year, the UK's High Court ruled the government’s Rwanda policy was lawful.

But it continued to be challenged in the UK domestic courts, with a case reaching the Supreme Court last year when judges ruled the policy was illegal under international law.

Judges on the Supreme Court said Rwanda could not be considered safe for migrants because asylum seekers who have their claims rejected could be returned to their countries of origin.

UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda plan unlawful

UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda plan unlawful

What has happened since?

The government signed a new treaty with Rwanda, which included an assurance that migrants would not be expelled from the country if their claims were rejected.

It addressed the Supreme Court's concerns in the latest legislation by forcing judges to treat Rwanda as a safe country for asylum seekers and allowing ministers to ignore emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

Members of the House of Lords had repeatedly blocked the legislation with amendments, stretching debate on the “emergency legislation” for more than four months and delaying flights from taking off.

Downing Street was hostile to the idea of making concessions to secure the passage of the bill, leading to a deadlock with the Lords.

Will it work?

Charities working with migrants say no.

In a statement issued to The National, Steve Smith, the chief executive of Care4Calais, said the “unworkable, albeit brutal, gimmick” will do nothing to stop small boat crossings.

People are not choosing to risk their lives in the Channel as their preferred route to claim asylum in the UK, Mr Smith said.

“It is their only route. The UK government has effectively cut every safe route to claim asylum in the UK, and the only way to stop crossings and save lives is to open new, safe routes.”

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the Rwanda plan would only “compound the chaos within the asylum system”.

He told The National: “Even if, as the Prime Minister asserts, there is to be a regular rhythm of multiple flights every month, this will still only correspond to, at most, a few thousand people a year, out of tens of thousands.

“Instead of giving these people a fair hearing on UK soil to determine if they have a protection need, the government will have to look after them indefinitely, at considerable cost.

“Despite the Prime Minister’s renewed claims about deterrence, we know from the Home Office’s own research, as well as our own, that policies such as the Rwanda Plan don’t actually work as a deterrent, and people seeking asylum have said they won’t stop coming to the UK to find safety.

“Refugee flows are driven by global events and geopolitical factors such as armed conflicts and political instability.

“And the reasons people come to the UK are often to do with family connections, community links and language.”

Updated: April 23, 2024, 1:16 PM