The House of Commons approves the draft Rwandan immigration law – DW – 01/17/2024

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak got his government's plans to send UK asylum seekers to Rwanda to consider them staying there instead through the lower house of parliament on Wednesday.

Sunak faced a potential rebellion from the moderate and right wings of the Conservative Party in a parliamentary vote on the policy he and the party have emphasized in recent months amid pressure from the right.

Lawmakers voted 320-276 to support the bill aimed at overcoming a UK Supreme Court objection to the Rwanda plan. But the controversial immigration policy on which Sunak staked his power still faces political and legal obstacles.

What was said in parliamentary debates?

Opposition Leader Keir Starmer approached the issue from a different angle at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, where the first in a series of questions to Sunak pointed to the government's recent admission that it had lost track of about 85% of the 5,000 people originally earmarked for deportation to Rwanda.

He wondered whether the government had been able to locate them, before going on to say that the policy had proven costly and ineffective.

“It's not a plan, it's a farce,” Starmer said in the lower house of parliament, before listing other previous problems with the plan. “Only this government can waste hundreds of millions of pounds on a deportation policy that removes no one.”

“He has no idea where they are, does he?” Starmer sarcastically headed into the room after not receiving an answer to his original question about missing persons. “I can tell you one place they are not, and that is Rwanda. Because the only people I send to Rwanda are government ministers.”

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The government rejected a parliamentary motion put forward by the more hard-line Conservatives to make the bill tougher on Tuesday, but nearly a fifth of the party's MPs – more than expected – supported the motion.

Two party members, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigned in protest, writing in a resignation letter they signed together: “Prime Minister, I have pledged to do whatever it takes to stop the boats.”

Conservative Party Deputy Leader Lee Anderson leaves Downing Street, London, after a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.  Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith have resigned in order to vote on amendments to the government's Rwanda bill, they said on X. Release date: Tuesday 16 January 2024.
Conservative Party deputy leader Lee Anderson resigned in protest on Tuesday, saying he could not sign the government's billPhoto: Yue Mok/Impex/Image Alliance

The government needed opposition votes to secure an absolute majority to overturn the changes.

What is Rwanda's policy?

Britain's attempt to transfer anyone entering the country illegally to Rwanda, where they can seek asylum instead without the prospect of residency in the UK, originally dates back to 2021, when Sunak was still finance minister in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government.

Implementing the plan has proven challenging for successive Conservative governments, amid both political and legal challenges.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak provides an update on the plan "Stop the boats" And illegal immigration during a press conference in the briefing hall in Downing Street in London, Thursday, December 7, 2023.
Faced with rising numbers of legal and illegal immigration in the wake of Brexit, which has been heralded as a way to curb immigration, the struggling Conservatives have placed a keen focus on their pledge to “stop the boats”.Photo: James Manning/AP/Image Alliance

The idea came shortly after the completion of Brexit – which was advertised to the public as a way to reduce immigration – as levels of legal and illegal immigration rose sharply despite the UK leaving the EU.

It also came amid pressure from the far right, especially former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, over the issue of migrants crossing the English Channel, often from France, in small boats.

The plan voted on Wednesday aims to limit the scope people have to challenge in court.

But the government said it was walking a fine line here because Rwanda said it would only move forward with an agreement that did not violate international humanitarian law.

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Hardliners want clearer language that rules out the opportunity for challenges in European courts, in particular, another pledge from the Brexit debate that will be difficult to keep.

Why this issue is important to Sunak

The Conservatives have been in power since 2010, when Sunak was the fifth Prime Minister during that period (and the third in this legislative term), and the Conservatives trail the opposition Labor Party by a wide margin in opinion polls.

Elections must be held by January next year, and are likely to happen shortly before then.

The party's latest program of five major pledges includes three related to stabilizing the economy and alleviating problems such as inflation, one to reduce hospital waiting lists in the nationalized health service, and finally a promise to “stall the boats.”

This policy may target dissatisfied voters and more right-wing members of the Conservative Party. There is currently no strong, viable political force on the right of the UK Conservative Party, but Brexit leader Nigel Farage – who currently makes his living in the media – has created a suitable platform for immediate mobilization in the UK Reform group. Some recent polls have estimated that if he ran in the general election, he could win as much as 10% of the vote.

British court rules on 'shortcomings' in Rwanda deportation plan

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Europe is also watching closely amid similar proposals?

Wednesday's vote would interest many politicians across Europe.

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The European Union is currently working on its own immigration reforms, with several member states recently discussing plans that seem at least reminiscent of those the British government is struggling to achieve.

Germany's opposition CDU/CSU party proposes that Berlin also cooperate with the government in Kigali.
msh/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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