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‘Extraordinary and deeply harmful’: Charities’ rallying cry for Lords to block Rwanda bill

More than 250 charities, religious organisations and civil society bodies have called on the House of Lords to block the “deeply harmful” Rwanda bill, labelling it an attack on universal human rights and the constitutional role of the judiciary.

In a joint statement ahead of the second reading of the bill in the Lords on Monday, the charities said that the government’s plans to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda would create a “two-tiered system” of human rights where some people had access to the UK courts and others didn’t, concluding: “Either we all have human rights or none of us do.”

The group, which includes political organisations, faith groups, unions and councils, condemned the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill as “constitutionally extraordinary and deeply harmful”, saying it would “threaten the universality of human rights and is likely in breach of international law”.

They also warned that the bill would breach the Good Friday agreement, which commits the UK government to “complete incorporation” of international human rights law in Northern Ireland.

Three peers from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Greens, also backed the statement saying the bill must be stopped.

Rishi Sunak’s government agreed on a legally binding treaty with Rwanda in December, arguing that it addressed concerns raised by the Supreme Court about the possibility of asylum seekers deported to Rwanda being transferred back to a country where they could be at risk.

Rishi Sunak has said he is prepared to ignore orders from the European Court of Human Rights (AFP/PA)
Rishi Sunak has said he is prepared to ignore orders from the European Court of Human Rights (AFP/PA)

Mr Sunak brought forward legislation to declare, contrary to the finding of the UK’s highest court, that Rwanda is in fact a safe country. The bill also severely limits asylum seekers’ ability to challenge their Rwanda deportation in the UK courts, making a showdown with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) more likely.

Peers in the House of Lords delivered an initial blow to Mr Sunak’s plans when they backed, by 214 votes to 171, a motion to delay the treaty until the government can prove that Rwanda is indeed safe.

In a hastily-arranged press conference this month, Mr Sunak warned peers not to "frustrate the will of the people" by opposing his flagship legislation.

In the joint civil society statement, shared exclusively with The Independent, charities called on the Lords “to reject the bill at second reading” on Monday - pointing out: “It was not a government manifesto commitment”.

In the letter, 256 civil society organisations, including Amnesty International, Unison, the Methodist Church, the Muslim Council of Britain and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute, said that the bill is “an attack on the constitutional role of the judiciary and the rule of law” because it “legislates something that has been authoritatively found to be false by the Supreme Court”.

Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta shake hands after they signed a new treaty in Kigali, Rwanda. (PA)
Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta shake hands after they signed a new treaty in Kigali, Rwanda. (PA)

The letter, coordinated by human rights organisation Liberty, continued: “If parliament validates legislating legal fictions in this way, it would set a dangerous precedent for future governments”. They also said that the bill would put the UK “on a direct collision course with the European Court of Human Rights”.

The president of the ECHR, Siofra O’Leary, has said that the UK must legally comply with any Rule 39 orders issued by the Strasbourg court. A Rule 39 order grounded the first attempted flight carrying migrants from the UK to Rwanda in June 2022.

Mr Sunak has put a clause in the Rwanda bill saying that it is “for ministers to decide whether to comply” with rulings from the ECHR.

The statement addressed this saying: “Giving a minister legislative validation in ignoring them is a deeply concerning green light to the breaking of international law and erodes the UK’s commitment to the Convention.”

LibDem peer Lord Purvis of Tweed, said that the Rwanda bill was “an unsustainable long-term policy”. He added: “It will cost the taxpayer millions while running roughshod over international law and doing nothing to solve the sky-high asylum backlog.

“Let’s be clear, this bill sets a dangerous precedent for the future and that is why we will be voting against the bill and all that it stands for”.

Labour peer Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, said the bill was “cruel, costly and un-British”, adding: “In dangerous and divided times for our country and the world, it is heartening to see so much of civil society coming together in defence of the best of our values”.

Green party peer, Baroness Jenny Jones, called on her fellow members to “stop this appalling bill”. She said: “It is not a manifesto commitment and convention allows the Lords to reject it. If the prime minister wants to claim the Rwanda bill is the will of the people then please hold a general election”.

Ahead of the second reading, human rights watchdog the Equality and Human Rights Commission also warned that the home secretary has been unable to confirm that the bill complies with the ECHR.

A spokesperson said: “By disapplying sections of the Human Rights Act and seeking to prevent courts from considering the risk of refoulement, this bill could expose people to harm and breaches of their right to life, their rights to be free from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment and their right to effective remedy.”

A Home Office spokesperson said:"We are determined to get flights off the ground to Rwanda and the UK has a strong and longstanding tradition of standing up for human rights.

"Rwanda is a safe country that cares deeply about supporting refugees. It hosts more than 135,000 asylum seekers and stands ready to relocate people and help them rebuild their lives.”