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Sunak’s Rwanda Bill Suffers Second Round of Defeats by UK Lords

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak suffered further defeats in the House of Lords on a controversial bill to declare Rwanda a safe destination for deported asylum seekers, setting up a parliamentary battle as the UK prime minister seeks to deliver a key plank of his immigration policy.

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After approving five amendments to the government’s Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill on Monday, the Lords passed another five on Wednesday, inserting provisions to reinstate the ability of courts and officials to decide whether Rwanda is a “safe” country in individual cases, and to prevent the deportation of unaccompanied children who are wrongly assessed as adults.

Other changes will force the Home Secretary to provide transparency on the number of migrants to be sent to Rwanda and the timetable, and will prevent the removal of human trafficking or modern slavery victims and people who have acted as agents or allies to UK armed forces.

The legislation is central to Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats,” as he faces pressure from the right of his Conservative Party to bring down both legal and illegal migration ahead of an election due within 11 months. While the number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats from France fell 36% last year, some 401 made the journey on Monday — the busiest day of the year so far, according to Home Office data.

In an effort to deter more arrivals, Sunak wants to deport to Rwanda those arriving by small boat, with no right of return. But government efforts to get deportation flights going have been flummoxed by the courts. A Supreme Court ruling last year found refugees in the East African country risked being forcibly sent back to their own countries where they could suffer harm, and that Rwanda was not a “safe country” for human rights purposes.

Sunak has been attempting to work around the ruling by securing guarantees from Rwanda in a new treaty and legislating to declare the country “safe” as a result. While that legislation passed the House of Commons unamended, the unelected upper chamber — where the governing Conservatives don’t have a majority — has sought to add extra checks and balances, despite Sunak warning peers not to frustrate the “will of the people.”

In a first round of changes on Monday, the Lords voted with chunky majorities to pass amendments designed to ensure the government complies with international law and protects human rights.

On Wednesday, Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti was the first to introduce an amendment, seeking to remove the automatic presumption of Rwanda’s safety for individuals who are members of certain groups — such the LGBTQ+ community — when courts and officials are assessing their cases.

“We have had rule-of law-appetizers,” she said, referring to Monday’s changes. “This is now the main course.” Her amendment was passed by 278 votes to 189.

Guli Francis-Dehqani, who has a place in the Lords through her position as Bishop of Chelmsford, spoke in support of an amendment to prevent unaccompanied child migrants who are erroneously assumed to be adults from being deported to Rwanda before their appeal is heard.

“Would you consent to this course of action for your own child or grandchild?” she asked fellow Lords. “I do not believe that there is anyone among us who would.” That amendment passed with 265 votes to 181.

After the Lords’ changes, the bill is set to face a process known as “ping-pong,” where the bill is batted between the two houses of Parliament until agreement is reached. While typically the Lords backs down, Sunak will hope that happens quickly, because his government has said it intends to get the first flight carrying migrants to Rwanda off the ground by “spring.”

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