Let it go: the government’s Rwanda bill and new treaty 

Legal Updates

This blog was originally published on 13 December 2023. It was updated on 2 February 2024 to reflect:

  • The passage of the Bill and the treaty through Parliament
  • The response of the House of Lords, and of the judiciary
  • The response of the UNHCR
  • The number of people claiming asylum that Rwanda has said it is able to take
  • The Rwandan asylum claims that were accepted in the UK

Rwanda is in the UK headlines again. 

After a landmark victory in the Supreme Court, where the judges unanimously rejected the safety of Rwanda as a place to send people to have their asylum claims considered, the UK government is once again trying to make the failed plan work. 

It is trying to do so through two different mechanisms. First, through the emergency passing of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, and second by signing a Treaty (agreement) with the Rwandan government in an attempt to sideline the Supreme Court’s decision about the safety of Rwanda for people who claim asylum in the UK. 

To catch up on what has happened in the Rwanda court cases, you can read our simple blog post here. 

The new Rwanda bill

A bill is a proposal for a new law (an act). You can learn about the difference between a bill and an act in our simple blog post here.

Until this point, there had never been a law relating to the Rwanda plan – the subject of the court cases was a policy based on a partnership between the UK and Rwandan governments.

Because the policy was found to be unlawful by the Supreme Court, the UK government is now trying to get the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill passed into law quickly as ‘emergency legislation’ in order to bypass (this means dismiss) the Supreme Court’s decision. You can read the full initial draft of the bill here.

The underlying principle of the bill is that the UK government wants Rwanda to be considered a ‘safe third country’ to send people seeking asylum to from the UK, and to take away the power of the courts (including the Supreme Court of the UK and the European Court of Human Rights) to dispute this. 

Much like the “Illegal” Migration Bill – as it then-was – there is a section at the top of the bill that states that the Home Secretary, James Cleverly, cannot state that the provisions of the bill are in line with the UK’s human rights obligations. This is shocking, and shows the lengths that the government is willing to go to in order to make the Rwanda plan work in some way.

The bill sets a dangerous precedent, not just for migrant rights, but democracy in the UK. It directly seeks to disapply provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998, and to block interim measures from the European Court of Human Rights. 

This government is more concerned with forcing through the Rwanda plan by declaring it to be a safe country for the purpose of sending people seeking asylum there, than with upholding the human rights and legal obligations of the UK as a whole. 

The bill does not prevent asylum seekers from going to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg with specific and individual reasons for why they cannot be sent to Rwanda. However, the bill gives ministers the power to override temporary injunctions issued by the ECHR. In this case, an injunction is an emergency, short term measure which orders a public body (like the Home Office) to not do something (send someone to Rwanda) while waiting for a decision on your case.

This could lead to the bizarre situation that a person is sent to Rwanda while the ECHR is considering their case for why they should not be sent to Rwanda. Then, if the ECHR decides in their favour, they could be returned back to the UK.

This bill was voted through Parliament at 7pm on 12 December 2023. It has now had its second reading in the House of Lords, and we await the Committee stage. You can track the bill’s rapid journey through Parliament here. Only after both houses have approved the Bill will it become law. The speed with which it is being zipped through Parliament also undermines the foundations of democracy, and significantly reduces the amount of time that members of the Houses of Commons and Lords usually spend contemplating, editing, and debating a bill before it becomes a law.

The judiciary has not responded positively to the bill, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s alleged expectation that appeals against deportation to Rwanda will be ‘prioritised’. The Prime Minister had said that he would seek to free up around 150 judges and courtrooms to prioritise this issue after the passage of the bill, presumably to speed up the Rwanda removals process. The Judicial Office made a statement to say that this would be unacceptable and that judicial deployment (or placement) remains an issue for the independent judiciary.

The Rwanda treaty

A treaty is a legally binding agreement signed by two or more countries that is governed by international law. 

Until now, the UK and Rwandan governments have had a formal partnership called the Migration and Economic Development Partnership. The new treaty signed by James Cleverly takes this relationship a step further and creates legal duties upon both countries in the hope of making the Rwanda plan (which was first introduced in April 2022) into a reality.

The treaty seeks to take power away from the British courts, and instead set up separate legal systems to govern the plan (including a monitoring committee and appeals process), in order to deem Rwanda a safe place for people seeking asylum to be sent to have their claims heard there, and seeks to “reassure” the UK Supreme Court that the concerns outlined in its decision will be addressed. 

On 15 January 2024, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) published a legal analysis of the UK-Rwanda treaty (and bill) and,

“…maintains its position that the arrangement, as now articulated in the UK-Rwanda Partnership Treaty and accompanying legislative scheme [the Bill] does not meet the required standards relating to the legality and appropriateness of the transfer of asylum seekers and is not compatible with international refugee law”.

So, the UNHCR found that the government’s initiatives violate international law and its duties towards people seeking safety.

On 17 January 2024, the parliamentary cross-party International Agreements Committee published a report assessing the UK-Rwanda treaty and concluded that, “significant legal and practical steps need to be taken before the safeguards provided in the Rwanda Treaty can be fully implemented“, including:

  • A new asylum law in Rwanda
  • A system for ensuring that non-refoulement (returning people to their countries of origin where they would be at significant risk of persecution) does not take place
  • A process for submitting individual complaints to the Monitoring Committee
  • Training for international judges in Rwandan law and practice
  • Training for Rwandan officials dealing with asylum applicants.

The Committee also shared that it agrees with the UNHCR’s view of the UK-Rwanda treaty: that the treaty is highly unlikely to change the system/position of Rwanda in the short to medium term. This means that both the Committee and the UNHCR believe that people who come to the UK to claim asylum and who the government intends to send to Rwanda instead would be at significant risk, just as confirmed by the Supreme Court in its decision published in November 2023.

This means that in pursuing these initiatives, the government is acting against the beliefs of renowned international organisations, the highest court of England & Wales, and independent parliamentary committees.

Other key considerations

First, Rwanda’s capacity to process the asylum claims the UK government seeks to hand over is also highly questionable. As a result of statistics released by the UK government (and helpfully summarised in this ‘i News’ article) in support of its Rwanda initiatives, it was revealed that Rwanda has only considered 421 asylum cases in five years and refused three-quarters of them. Additionally, “only 104 people across the entire Rwandan government, legal system and charity sector have so far been trained to implement the contested deal with the UK, and enhanced asylum processing it requires”. This further points to the unworkability of this cruel plan, and calls into question just how many asylum claims Rwanda will be able to process as a result of this treaty and Bill.

Second, and perhaps even more shockingly, an investigation by the Observer has exposed the fact that, since the original Rwanda policy was announced in April 2022, at least 10 Rwandans have claimed asylum and received refugee status in the UK – with at least two of those claims being granted by the UK Home Office as recently as October and November 2023. This means that the UK Home Office accepted their claims that they would be at risk of persecution if they were to be return to Rwanda. This means that while the UK government has been ferociously fighting the make the Rwanda plan a reality for people who claim asylum in the UK, and arguing that Rwanda’s human rights record is adequate enough to send people there, it has accepted that Rwandan nationals themselves would not be safe in their country.

What does this mean?

The Supreme Court’s decision to declare the government’s Rwanda plan unlawful was a huge victory for migration justice, and a huge blow to the UK government that continues to scapegoat migrants for its own multiple failures. 

In response, the government has doubled down with its new Bill and the Treaty with the Rwandan government. We wholly reject and condemn these initiatives that the government is desperately clawing for. The Supreme Court’s decision was final. Whether or not these initiatives succeed in achieving their aims, they are a waste of time, energy and money and do not solve the immense backlog in the Home Office asylum decision making process, nor do they solve the injustice faced by all migrants in the UK. 

We have a long way to go to dismantle the Hostile Environment, and we will not stop until these walls fall. 

As always, 

No One is Illegal. 

Migration is life.

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