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Rishi Sunak gets a respite after UK lawmakers vote in favor of the Rwanda migration bill

The bill seeks to overcome a ruling by the U.K. Supreme Court that the plan to send migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel in boats to Rwanda is illegal

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak walks outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, December 12, 2023.HANNAH MCKAY (REUTERS)

British lawmakers have voted to support the government’s plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, keeping alive a policy that has angered human rights groups and cost the U.K. at least $300 million, without a single flight getting off the ground.

The House of Commons voted 313-269 to approve the government’s Rwanda bill in principle, sending it on for further scrutiny. It came after the government spent the day scrambling for support among hard-line Conservative lawmakers who believe the legislation is not tough enough.

The result averts a defeat that would have left Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s authority shredded and his government teetering. But it tees up further wrangling in the coming weeks, with the bill facing opposition from both left and right.

The bill seeks to overcome a ruling by the U.K. Supreme Court that the plan to send migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel in boats to Rwanda – where they would stay permanently -- is illegal.

Normally Tuesday’s vote would have been a formality. Sunak’s Conservatives have a substantial majority, and the last time a government bill was defeated at its first Commons vote — known as second reading — was in 1986.

But the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill faces opposition from hard-liners on the Conservative right, who say it does not go far enough to ensure migrants who arrive in the U.K. without permission can be deported.

The government was so nervous about the result that it ordered Climate Minister Graham Stuart to fly back from the COP28 summit in Dubai, where negotiations are in their final hours, for the vote.

On social media, Sunak urged lawmakers to support “the toughest ever anti-illegal immigration legislation.

“This bill will allow us to control who comes into this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “To stop the boats, we need to back this bill.”

The Rwanda plan is an expensive, highly controversial policy that has not, so far, sent a single person to the East African country. But it has become a totemic issue for Sunak, central to his pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorized migrants to the U.K. across the English Channel from France. More than 29,000 people have done so this year, down from 46,000 in all of 2022.

Sunak believes delivering on his promise will allow the Conservatives to close a big opinion-poll gap with the opposition Labour Party before an election that must be held in the next year.

The plan has already cost the government at least 240 million pounds ($300 million) in payments to Rwanda, which agreed in 2022 to process and settle hundreds of asylum-seekers a year from the U.K. Sunak believes that will deter migrants from making the hazardous journeys and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs.

The plan has faced multiple legal challenges, and last month Britain’s top court ruled it illegal, saying Rwanda isn’t a safe destination for refugees. In response, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.

The law, if approved by Parliament, would allow the government to “disapply” sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called the bill a “gimmick.” “It’s built on sand. It isn’t going to work,” he said.

The bill has faced criticism from centrist Conservative lawmakers concerned that it sidelines the courts. Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told lawmakers that “this Parliament is sovereign, but we also have the independence of the courts and the rule of law to bear in mind.”

Home Secretary James Cleverly assured lawmakers that “the actions that we are taking, whilst novel, whilst very much pushing at the edge of the envelope, are within the framework of international law.”

Human rights groups say it’s unworkable and unethical to send asylum-seekers to a country more than 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) away, with no hope of ever returning to the U.K. They also cite Rwanda’s poor human rights record, including allegations of torture and killings of government opponents.

Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International U.K., called the bill an “outrageous attack on the very concept of universal human rights.”

But legislators on the party’s authoritarian wing think the legislation is too mild because it leaves migrants some legal routes to challenge deportation, both in U.K. courts and at the European Court of Human Rights. They plan to try to amend the bill to toughen it when it returns to Parliament early next year.

Tuesday’s victory buys Sunak some breathing space, though weeks of wrangling and more votes in Parliament lie ahead before the bill can become law.

Defeat could have spurred restive colleagues, worried the party is headed for electoral defeat, to throw the dice on a change of leader. Under party rules, Sunak will face a no-confidence vote if 53 lawmakers — 15% of the Conservative total — call for one.

Others argue that it would be disastrous to remove yet another prime minister without a national election. Sunak is the third Conservative prime minister since the last election in 2019, after the party ejected both Boris Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss.

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