UK plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda incompatible with human rights, parliamentary watchdog says

File – Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Ministers’ Questions session in parliament in London, on Feb. 7, 2024. The British government’s plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda is “fundamentally incompatible with the U.K.’s human rights obligations,” Parliament’s human-rights watchdog said Monday Feb. 12, 2024, as the contentious bill returned for debate in the House of Lords. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, File)

By The Associated Press

The British government’s plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda is “fundamentally incompatible” with the U.K.’s human rights obligations, a parliamentary rights watchdog said Monday, as the contentious bill returned for debate in the House of Lords.

Parliament’s unelected upper chamber is scrutinizing — and trying to change — a bill designed to overcome the U.K. Supreme Court’s ruling that the Rwanda plan is illegal. The court said in November that the East African nation is not a safe country for migrants.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill pronounces the country safe, makes it harder for migrants to challenge deportation and allows the British government to ignore injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights that seek to block removals.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has members from both government and opposition parties, said in a report that the bill “openly invites the possibility of the U.K. breaching international law” and allows British officials “to act in a manner that is incompatible with human rights standards.”

Scottish National Party lawmaker Joanna Cherry, who chairs the committee, said the bill “risks untold damage to the U.K.’s reputation as a proponent of human rights.”

“This bill is designed to remove vital safeguards against persecution and human rights abuses, including the fundamental right to access a court,” she said. “Hostility to human rights is at its heart and no amendments can salvage it.”

The Home Office said the Rwanda plan is a “bold and innovative” solution to a “major global challenge.”

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

Under the policy, asylum-seekers who reach the U.K. in small boats across the English Channel would have their claims processed in Rwanda, and stay there permanently. The plan is key to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorized migrants to the U.K. Sunak argues that deporting unauthorized asylum-seekers will deter people from making risky journeys and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs.

Human rights groups call the plan inhumane and unworkable, and no one has yet been sent to Rwanda.

In response to the Supreme Court ruling, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s Conservative government argues the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination.

The bill was approved by the House of Commons last month, though only after 60 members of Sunak’s governing Conservatives rebelled in an effort to make the legislation tougher.

It is now being scrutinized by the Lords, many of whom want to defeat or water down the bill. Unlike the Commons, the governing Conservatives do not hold a majority of seats in the Lords.

The bill will face multiple attempts to amend it and a protracted back-and-forth between the Lords and the elected House of Commons that could foil Sunak’s aim of getting the first flight to Rwanda off the ground this spring. Ultimately, though the upper house can delay and amend legislation but can’t overrule the elected Commons.

Both Conservative and opposition members of the Lords issued warnings on Monday about the bill.

Shami Chakrabarti, a former director of human rights group Liberty and current Labour member of the Lords, said the bill “threatens both the domestic rule of law – especially the separation of powers (between legislature and judiciary) – and the international rules-based order.”

Christopher Tugendhat, a Conservative, said he found it “quite extraordinary that the party of Margaret Thatcher should be introducing a bill of this kind.”

“What we are being asked to do really represents the sort of behavior that the world associates with despots and autocracies, not with an established democracy, not with the Mother of Parliaments,” he said.