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House of Lords Stalls U.K. Bill to Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

WorldEuropeHouse of Lords Stalls U.K. Bill to Send Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

Britain’s House of Lords dealt a sharp setback to the government on Wednesday, voting to amend the Conservative Party’s flagship immigration legislation and potentially delay a contentious plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda.

It was an unusual display of defiance by the Lords, many of whom object to the policy on legal and constitutional grounds. While the Conservative government, with a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, can ultimately get the bill passed, the back-and-forth with the House of Lords, the unelected upper house of Parliament, could thwart the government’s hopes for a quick start to a plan it views as critical to its fortunes in an election year.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak argues that the flights to Rwanda, a small country in East Africa, would be a vital deterrent that could stem the flow of tens of thousands of people who make dangerous, frequently illegal crossings from France to Britain each year on small, often unseaworthy boats.

The government does not expect any such flights until May, and, after Wednesday’s actions by the House of Lords, that timeline could now slip to June. The prime minister’s office had no immediate comment.

Those chosen for the first flight are expected to file legal appeals that could stymie the plan further.

Under the legislation, those deported from Britain would have their asylum claims assessed in Rwanda. But even if the claims were successful, the deportees would stay there and not be allowed to settle in Britain.

The policy was started by a former prime minister, Boris Johnson, almost two years ago. But despite paying hundreds of millions of pounds to Rwanda as part of its agreement with that nation, the British government so far has not been able to send a single asylum seeker there.

The government has been under heavy pressure over the arrival of small boats on the British coast, which have become a symbol of its failure to contain immigration. Taking control of Britain’s frontiers was a central promise of the 2016 Brexit campaign, championed by Mr. Johnson and supported by Mr. Sunak.

In June 2022, last-minute legal action grounded the first scheduled flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda, and since then, the policy has been on hold. Last year Britain’s Supreme Court ruled against the plan, declaring that Rwanda was not a safe destination for refugees and there was a risk that some sent there would be returned to their countries of origin, where they could be at risk.

The bill debated on Wednesday overrules that judgment, declaring Rwanda a safe country and instructing the courts to consider it as such. That approach was heavily criticized in the House of Lords, whose members include many former lawmakers, lawyers, judges, civil servants and diplomats.

In a debate last month, Kenneth Clarke, a Conservative former chancellor of the Exchequer, said the legislation set “an extremely dangerous precedent” by contradicting the Supreme Court on a point of law.

In its deliberations, the House of Lords advanced a series of amendments, but those were overturned this week by the elected, and far more powerful, House of Commons. On Wednesday, the Lords voted to reinstate seven amendments, including one requiring that Rwanda supply evidence that it is a safe destination for refugees.

The upper chamber can do little more than postpone a bill, and, lacking democratic legitimacy, it invariably bows to the will of the House of Commons eventually. But that did not stop some members from striking a defiant tone.

“I know that some noble Lords feel that the Commons must have the last word,” said David Hope, a retired Scottish judge who is a nonpartisan member of the House of Lords. “But on this occasion I really invite those Lordships who are minded to take that view to think very carefully.”

Vernon Coaker, a member speaking for the opposition Labour Party, which is against the plan, criticized the government for refusing to give any weight to the previous amendments submitted by the House of Lords. Any delays to the deportation policy were the government’s fault, he said, because it controls the parliamentary timetable.

But he conceded that the legislation would ultimately pass. “We have said all along, and I repeat here, that it is not our intention to block the bill,” he said.

In addition to the legislation, known as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, the British government negotiated a new treaty with the Rwandan government to try to address the concerns raised by the Supreme Court.

Under the latest version of the plan, even those whose asylum claims were rejected while they were in Rwanda would be allowed to stay there. That was designed to allay fears that they could be sent back to their countries of origin, where they might be at risk.

Even so, the bill has been fiercely criticized by human rights groups. “This could all come to an end now if the government abandons the cruel policy of refusing to decide asylum claims this country receives,” said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International U.K.’s chief executive.

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