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Government Could Need UN Nod On Rwanda Flights In New Lords Proposal

Rishi Sunak meets border force officials at Gatwick Airport (Alamy)

4 min read

The House of Lords is exploring whether Government could need to seek UN advice on whether Rwanda is a safe country in order to deport asylum seekers to the country without exposing them to “unreasonable risk".

Speaking as the upper house began its first day of committee stage on the controversial Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, the Bishop of Southwark told peers that while the government’s treaty with Rwanda “introduces safeguards and checks” to ensure that the country is safe for asylum seekers, these are “not yet in force” and “more is needed” to make those guarantees.

Peers are as a result seeking alterations to the controversial legislation to seek formal assurances the treaty's conditions are met before any asylum seekers can be removed to Rwanda. 

The Rwanda Bill seeks to declare Rwanda a safe country in order to enact proposals to send asylum seekers to the African nation for processing set out in the Illegal Migration Act, which passed into law last year. It lays out measures such as the creation of a monitoring committee and guarantees for protections against modern slavery, and was signed by Home Secretary James Cleverly after a Supreme Court ruling prevented the government from proceeding with their plans. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has invested significant political capital in his pledge to end illegal migration, and vowed to do whatever it takes to see deportation flights take off. 

During Monday's Lords session, the Bishop of Southwark spoke in favour of an amendment supported by Labour peer Baroness Chakrabarti and the Archbishop of Canterbury, which if accepted, would “require positive UNHCR advice on the safety of Rwanda to be laid before Parliament before claims for asylum in the UK may be processed in Rwanda”. 

He told peers that they were discussing the “safety” of Rwanda “for people who by definition have highly complex lives and circumstances”. 

“The treaty introduces safeguards and checks – so it should – but these are not yet in force," the Bishop explained. 

“More is needed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency with which the government has worked with in a highly effective way over many years, should provide that positive judgement of safety. 

“Until then, the government is taking an unreasonable risk by sending anyone to Rwanda.” 

Last month, the Lords’ International Agreements Committee said that the treaty with Rwanda should not be ratified until MPs are certain that the protections it aims to offer are in place.

They concluded that ministers should provide Parliament with more information to prove that the “legal and practical” steps needed to ensure Rwanda is a safe country for asylum seekers have been taken, before the treaty is agreed to by Parliament.

Last month Rishi Sunak narrowly avoided a rebellion from his own backbenchers over the legislation, who wanted to ensure that the bill was watertight against legal challenges. 

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard told Monday’s debate that accepting these amendments would “constitute nothing less than an abdication of the responsibilities of government”. 

Howard, who served as leader of the party between 2003 and 2005 while the Conservatives were in opposition, and was home secretary in John Major's government, told peers that “the plain fact is that we are a parliamentary democracy, that means that parliament is sovereign,” and there is accountability that comes with that. 

He said that Parliament, unlike the UN, bears responsibility for the safety of people who “make the perilous Channel crossing” and have “no duty to take into account the resentment felt by so many against the sheer unfairness of illegal immigration and the way in which it gives preference not to the less deserving, but merely to those who can afford to pay the people smugglers”. 

He added: “These amendments would prevent Government and parliament from discharging those responsibilities. 

“They seek to outsource those responsibilities to an unelected body with no accountability. The acceptance of these amendments would constitute nothing less than an abdication of the responsibilities of government."

After the plans cleared their most recent Commons hurdle last month, Sunak warned peers against opposing the legislation, describing it as the “will of the people". He said that getting the plans on to the statute book is “an urgent national priority”.


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