Sunak’s Rwanda Plan Fails First Test in House of Lords


Four days ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain urged the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of Parliament, not to block his plans to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, describing his contentious migration policy as “the will of the people.”

On Monday night, the Lords did not play ball.

Instead, they voted to delay the crucial treaty with Rwanda that underpins Mr. Sunak’s legislation — underscoring the hostility among some members of the chamber to a policy that has proved divisive ever since it was introduced by Boris Johnson, then the prime minister, in 2022.

In practical terms, the vote has limited impact because the House of Lords — a legislature which is largely made up of former politicians, civil servants and diplomats, as well as 26 bishops — does not have the power to prevent the treaty from coming into force.

But it is a symbolic setback for Mr. Sunak and suggests that the Lords may try to amend the broader legislation, the so-called safety of Rwanda bill, which they are scheduled to start debating next week. It may also strengthen future legal challenges by asylum seekers against their deportation to the African country.

The Conservative government’s Rwanda plan would mean that anyone arriving by small boat or other “irregular means” could not claim asylum in Britain. Instead, those asylum seekers would be detained and then sent to Rwanda. Their asylum cases would be heard in the African country, and they would be resettled there.

By threatening asylum seekers with deportation to Rwanda, Mr. Sunak hopes to deter people from making the dangerous crossing of the English Channel. But so far, despite Britain’s having paid 240 million pounds, about $300 million, to the Rwandan government, nobody has been put on a plane to the African country because of legal challenges.

In any case, experts say, it is not clear that the plan would have the promised deterrent effect, given the fact that those traveling in small boats already risk their lives in the hope of reaching Britain.

Legal specialists say the policy also threatens Britain’s human rights commitments. In November, the British Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda was not a safe country for refugees, based on expert evidence from the United Nations, and that the plan would breach domestic and international law.

In response, the government created the “safety of Rwanda” bill, which explicitly declares the African nation to be a safe place for asylum seekers — in contradiction of the Supreme Court’s ruling — and requires Britain’s courts and tribunals to treat it as such.

To try to overcome the Supreme Court’s objections, Mr. Sunak agreed to a treaty with Rwanda promising various safeguards for asylum seekers, including that they would not be expelled from the African country even if their claims were rejected. It was the ratification of that treaty that the House of Lords voted to delay on Monday night, by 214 votes to 171.

The Lords voted in favor of a motion stating that the government should not ratify the Rwanda treaty “until Parliament is satisfied that the protections it provides have been fully implemented, since Parliament is being asked to make a judgment, based on the treaty, that Rwanda is safe.”

With his Conservative Party trailing in the opinion polls as the British economy stagnates, Mr. Sunak has invested huge political capital in the Rwanda policy, but it has increasingly become a source of division within his own party.

Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank, said, “This is the first indication that the Rwanda policy is unlikely to get through the Lords unscathed.”

She added that, by pointing out failings that still needed to be addressed in Rwanda’s immigration system, the vote in the House of Lords “may be referenced in future legal challenges” to Mr. Sunak’s plan by those resisting deportation to the African country.

The motion to delay the treaty was introduced by Peter Goldsmith, a former attorney general and a member of the House of Lords for the opposition Labour Party. He said that Monday’s vote was the first of its kind since the current treaty ratification legislation came into force in 2010. The motion, he said, was “unprecedented.”

John Kerr, a member of the Lords who is a former diplomat and not aligned to any political party, expressed his opposition to the Rwanda scheme. “Those we offload to Rwanda are never to get a hearing for their claim to asylum in this country,” he said. “We intend to wash our hands of them and declare them inadmissible: Rwanda’s responsibility, not ours.”

He called the migration plan “unconscionable.”

Last week, the House of Commons voted in favor of the policy after two tense days of debate that exposed deep divisions in the Conservative Party. At one point, around 60 lawmakers on the right of Mr. Sunak’s party tried unsuccessfully to toughen the Rwanda bill, in an attempt to pre-empt the legal challenges that most experts agree will start once the government attempts to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

The House of Lords is scheduled to begin debating the safety of Rwanda bill on Jan. 29. While the chamber cannot block legislation, it can delay bills for up to a year if they were not included in the governing party’s election manifesto. The Lords can also propose amendments to legislation that must then be debated in the House of Commons, a process known as “parliamentary Ping-Pong” because amendments can go back and forth between the two houses a number of times before a bill is passed or, occasionally, rejected.

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