UN says Britain's Rwanda deportation plans 'not compatible' with international law

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces significant challenges to asylum-seeker legislation, with opposition from hard-right of his own party

In his bid to ‘stop the boats’, Rishi Sunak has amended Britain’s Rwanda deportation policy for asylum seekers, which is now facing new opposition. Getty Images
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The British government’s controversial Rwanda deportation scheme has come under mounting pressure after the UN refugee agency said it was still “not compatible” with international law.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plan to stop small boats crossing the English Channel is becoming increasingly frayed as he attempts to push legislation through the UK Parliament so that deportations of undocumented asylum seekers can start.

Right-wing Tories, including the party’s deputy chairman, are seeking to amend the legislation to negate asylum seekers’ right to appeal.

But as the Safety of Rwanda Bill stands, it is still in breach of international law, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a new report.

“It does not meet the required standards relating to the legality and appropriateness of the transfer of asylum seekers and is not compatible with international refugee law,” it said.

It also deemed that the deal struck between Britain and Rwanda “runs counter to the fundamental principles of global solidarity” that underpin the international system protecting asylum seekers.

In a previous analysis in 2022, the UNHCR “noted its serious concerns” that asylum seekers transferred to Rwanda “would not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status”.

The latest report said: “As of January 2024, UNHCR has not observed changes in the practice of asylum adjudication that would overcome the concerns set out in its 2022 analysis."

This stance reflected the view of Britain’s supreme court, which ruled in November that Rwanda was not a safe country.

Mr Sunak is now attempting to sidestep that ruling by passing legislation via parliament that states the central African country is safe for deportations.

But some of his hardline Conservative MPs argue the current bill does not go far enough and have tabled amendments to deny asylum seekers the right to appeal.

The Tory dissenters' biggest fear is that hundreds of cases could be caught up legal red tape and end up in the European Court of Human Rights, which will likely declare the deportations unlawful.

Right-wing Conservatives also believe the Rwanda policy is key to winning the next general election, in which latest polling suggests the Tories are facing a wipeout.

Hence on Wednesday the high-profile deputy chairman Lee Anderson made it clear he would back the amendments aimed at blocking international human rights laws.

But the UN report said it remained “deeply concerned” over the proposal to exclude asylum seekers from the “protections enshrined by the Human Rights Act”, including the right to challenge their deportation.

It added the British law would set “an acutely troubling precedent”.

It further highlighted that the legislation as it currently stands still “failed to meet the required standards” on the “appropriateness of transfer of asylum seekers”.

But No 10 Downing Street said the UNHCR itself used Rwanda as a place to send refugees – the country already has 136,000 asylum seekers and insisted the government’s own legal advice was that the plan was lawful.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Sunak “would not be deterred from a course of action” that was apparently backed by the public.

“It’s important that we have control of our borders, it’s right that the British people and not criminal gangs decide who comes to this country,” he said. “And we are acting in a way that we believe is both legal and responsible.”

Updated: January 16, 2024, 2:54 PM