LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers voted Tuesday to support the government’s plan to send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda, keeping alive a policy that has angered human rights groups and cost the U.K. at least $300 million, without a single flight getting off the ground.
The House of Commons voted 313-269 to approve the government’s Rwanda bill in principle, sending it on for further scrutiny. The result averts a defeat that would have left Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s authority shredded and his government teetering. It buys Sunak some breathing space, but tees up further wrangling in the coming weeks.
The bill seeks to overcome a ruling by the U.K. Supreme Court that the plan to send migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel in boats to Rwanda – where they would stay permanently -- is illegal.
The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill faces criticism both from Conservative centrists who think it skirts with breaking international law, and from lawmakers on the party's authoritarian right, who say it doesn't go far enough to ensure migrants who arrive in the U.K. without permission can be deported.
The government was so nervous about the result that it ordered Climate Minister Graham Stuart to fly back from the COP28 summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where negotiations are in their final hours, for the vote.
But after threatening to block the bill on Tuesday, many of the hard-liners abstained in hopes of toughening it up later in the legislative process.
After the vote, Sunak said on social media that “the British people should decide who gets to come to this country — not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this Bill delivers.”
The Rwanda plan is an expensive, highly controversial policy that hasn't sent a single person to the East African country so far. But it has become a totemic issue for Sunak, central to his pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorized migrants to the U.K. across the English Channel from France. More than 29,000 people have done so this year, down from 46,000 in all of 2022.
Sunak believes delivering on his promise will allow the Conservatives to close a big opinion-poll gap with the opposition Labour Party before an election that must be held in the next year.
The plan has already cost the government at least 240 million pounds ($300 million) in payments to Rwanda, which agreed in 2022 to process and settle hundreds of asylum-seekers a year from the U.K. Sunak believes that will deter migrants from making the hazardous journeys and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs.
The plan has faced multiple legal challenges, and Britain’s top court ruled last month that it was illegal, saying Rwanda isn’t a safe destination for refugees. In response, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring that Rwanda is a safe destination, regardless of the Supreme Court ruling.
The law, if approved by Parliament, would allow the government to “disapply” sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims.
Legislators on the party’s authoritarian wing think the legislation is too mild, because it leaves some legal routes for migrants to challenge deportation, both in U.K. courts and at the European Court of Human Rights.
More centrist Tories are concerned that it sidelines the courts and may break international law. Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told lawmakers that “this Parliament is sovereign, but we also have the independence of the courts and the rule of law to bear in mind” — though he voted for the bill anyway.
Home Secretary James Cleverly assured lawmakers that “the actions that we are taking, whilst novel, whilst very much pushing at the edge of the envelope, are within the framework of international law.”
Human rights groups say it’s unworkable and unethical to send asylum-seekers to a country more than 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) away, with no hope of ever returning to the U.K. They also cite Rwanda’s poor human rights record, including allegations of torture and killings of government opponents.
Yasmine Ahmed, U.K. Director of Human Rights Watch, said the result of the vote was “a defeat for human decency and a hammer blow for the rule of law.”
“A government willing to subvert the rule of law by breaching human rights and undermining judicial oversight is a dangerous prospect," Ahmed said.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer called the bill a “gimmick.”
“It’s built on sand. It isn’t going to work,” he said.
Defeat on Tuesday would have been a severe blow for Sunak, and could have spurred restive colleagues, worried the party is headed for electoral defeat, to throw the dice on a change of leader. Under party rules, Sunak will face a no-confidence vote if 53 lawmakers — 15% of the Conservative total — call for one.
Others argue that it would be disastrous to remove yet another prime minister without a national election. Sunak is the third Conservative prime minister since the last election in 2019, after the party ejected both Boris Johnson and his successor, Liz Truss.