Sunak Faces Courts After Bruising Win on Rwanda Migrant Plan

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to overcome further challenges and press ahead with deportation flights to Rwanda after securing passage of landmark migration legislation in a battle that exposed deep rifts in his Conservative Party.

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The legislation declaring the African nation a safe destination for asylum-seekers cleared its final hurdle in Parliament early Tuesday, following weeks of “ping-pong” between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The unelected upper chamber dropped efforts to amend the measure after the government agreed to exemptions for those who have supported the British military abroad, such as in Afghanistan.

“The passing of this landmark legislation is not just a step forward but a fundamental change in the global equation on migration,” Sunak said in statement Tuesday morning before starting a foreign trip to Europe. “Our focus is to now get flights off the ground, and I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives.”

Why the UK’s Plan to Stop Migrants Depends on Rwanda: QuickTake

The legislation’s passage represents a rare and hard-fought victory for Sunak, who has faced criticism from the political left and right — and little benefit to the ruling party’s historically low poll numbers — as he pressed ahead with the plan. The final votes came after the prime minister vowed Monday to keep Parliament sitting until the Lords, who traditionally give way to legislation from the lower chamber, dropped its opposition.

Sunak’s aides see the policy — first announced two years ago under former premier Boris Johnson — as a potential electoral game-changer for his government. Their hope is that it shows that he has delivered on a promise to “stop the boats” bringing migrants across the English Channel, one of five pledges he made after taking office in 2022.

The ruling party remains far behind Keir Starmer’s Labour Party after 14 years in power, which included Brexit, a historic cost-of-living shock and growing complaints about public services.

The urgency to act is clear for the government: the number of migrants reaching the UK by boat hit a record in the first three months of the year. During the night, at least five migrants died trying to make the journey across the channel, French newspaper La Voix du Nord reported on Tuesday.

Sunak brought the legislation forward last year to circumvent a UK Supreme Court ruling that blocked deportations on human rights grounds, citing the risk that Rwanda could send asylum-seekers back to their home countries. It drew opprobrium from opposition parties and human rights groups who argued the UK was seeking to shirk its legal obligations. Starmer has vowed to repeal it if he wins power at the next general election.

“It’s a very expensive way of dealing with a very small cohort of refugees and potential asylum seekers,” Alex Carlile, a cross-bench member of the House of Lords told BBC radio. “I think this bill is going to be a Pyrrhic victory for the government.”

Amnesty International UK Chief Executive Officer Sacha Deshmukh, meanwhile, said the passing of the bill “will leave a stain on this country’s moral reputation.”

“The UK parliament has passed a bill that takes a hatchet to international legal protections for some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Deshmukh said in a statement. “Switching off human rights protections for people who the government thinks it can gain political capital from attacking sets an extremely dangerous precedent.”

The measure has also been opposed by hard-line Tories, including Sunak’s own former immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who argued the plan wouldn’t work, and sought to toughen it.

Conservatives are worried about shedding votes to the Reform UK party founded by former Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage and some advocate leaving the European Court of Human Rights, a body that poses a remaining hurdle to the plan. Sunak’s aides see the deportations as a way to claw back votes from the insurgent party, whose rise threatens to amplify a Labour victory in an election expected later this year.

The first flights will take place in 10 to 12 weeks, Sunak said Monday, conceding he’ll fail to deliver on a longstanding pledge to get them off the ground by the spring. The time-line announced by Sunak has fueled speculation in Westminster that he is considering holding the general election in July, fresh off the momentum from the first flights.

The passage could provide an immediate boost for the Conservatives in local elections set to be held across England and Wales in little more than a week. Yet uncertainty hangs over Downing Street’s expectations that getting the Rwanda program up and running will ease the pressure on Sunak and make a difference to the polls.

The government is already preparing for last-minute legal challenges. Sunak said Monday that extra court rooms and judicial time have been reserved in case of last-ditch legal challenges to the policy, while commercial planes have been chartered and 500 escorts have been trained.

“There will be legal challenges, we will meet them, and the planes will take off,” Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson told BBC Radio on Tuesday.

Litigation lawyer Nicholas Hughes, from the law firm Duncan Lewis Solicitors, told BBC radio on Tuesday that his team would “do everything we can” to prevent their dozens of clients from being put on a flight to Rwanda. He suggested challenges to the government could come on the grounds of mental ill-health, or fear of harm if sent to the east African nation. “What we are doing is protecting vulnerable individuals from being sent to places which might cause them severe harm,” he said.

Even if flights do get off the ground, there are questions about whether they’ll prove enough of a deterrent for the boat crossings and whether Rwanda has enough capacity to process more than a few hundred migrants a year.

But along with the economy, small boats have become the defining policy issue for Sunak as he seeks to present a tough stance and shore up his Conservative base ahead of the general election.

“We will start the flights and stop the boats,” the prime minister said Monday.

--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Joe Mayes and Ailbhe Rea.

(Updates with Channel deaths, comment from lawyer starting in seventh paragraph.)

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