The British government’s plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda have finally been approved by parliament, ending a months-long deadlock between the lower and upper chambers over the legality of the policy.

Under the new law, any asylum seekers who arrive illegally in Britain will be sent to Rwanda. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged that the first flight will leave as early as July, promising a wave of deportations “come what may” over the summer.

Tens of thousands of people have crossed the English Channel in small boats in recent years, many fleeing war and poverty. The government claims it aims to deter dangerous crossings in small boats and to smash people-smuggling networks.

But rights groups have criticised the scheme, calling it inhumane and illegal, and say there is no evidence this policy will stop human trafficking or dangerous boat crossings. While Rwanda is often cited as one of the most stable countries in Africa, many accuse President Paul Kagame of ruling in a climate of fear and oppression.

Why has this bill been delayed so many times?

The deportation plan has faced several legal hurdles.

In June 2022, the first flight taking refugees to Rwanda was stopped at the last minute by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Last year, the United Kingdom Supreme Court declared the deportation scheme unlawful on the basis that the government could not guarantee the safety of migrants once they had arrived in Rwanda.

The court upheld a UK Court of Appeal decision that the proposals were unlawful, ruling that there were substantial grounds for believing “asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement [return] to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda”.

Evidence was based on Rwanda’s poor human rights record, as well as “serious and systematic defects” in the country’s procedures for processing asylum claims. There was, the court noted, a “surprisingly high rate of rejection of asylum claims from certain countries in known conflict zones”.

It also noted Rwanda’s existing track record of not honouring “non-refoulement” principles in a previous deal with Israel. Between 2013 and 2018, the East African country had deported thousands of refugees sent under Israel’s “voluntary departure” scheme.

“The Supreme Court looked at it all very carefully and concluded Rwanda did not have a system in place to protect refugees,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director.

What does the Rwanda bill say?

The Safety of Rwanda Bill, which was passed early on Tuesday, is an attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling by designating Rwanda as a safe destination.

This move was proposed after the British government signed a new treaty with the East African nation last year that appeared to strengthen protections, securing promises that asylum seekers deported there would not be sent anywhere other than back to Britain.

Does this make it safer for asylum seekers to be deported to Rwanda?

Human rights groups say it does not. According to Valdez-Symonds, the Supreme Court ruling has already shown that Rwanda’s asylum practices are “not safe” and “unreliable”. “Why is Rwanda making bigger promises? Why should that convince anyone?” he asked.

“Instead of the government helping Rwanda over a period of time to change they instead say: ‘Let’s get a bigger promise from Rwandans and pretend all is okay’,” he said.

The bill renders some sections of Britain’s Human Rights Act, which incorporates rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, inapplicable, giving ministers powers to decide on whether or not to comply with any ECHR injunction.

“It basically switches off the Human Rights Act for these purposes,” said Valdez-Symonds. “If the ECHR issues another injunction to prevent or delay a flight, our courts are to be told to take no notice of that unless the minister decides that the injunction has to be followed.”

The bill, he said, set a “dangerous and wrong” precedent. “If parliament has the authority to do that and courts accept, then there’s no reason it can’t work in relation to anything else the government wants to do if it can bully parliament into passing the law.

“It can work for any other group of people.”

When will deportations to Rwanda start?

The bill will now receive royal assent to pass into law.

Sunak promised on Monday that flights will start within 10 to 12 weeks. “No ifs, no buts. These flights are going to Rwanda,” he said. He did not specify how many people would be deported or exactly when the flights would occur.

In preparation for the bill’s approval, Sunak said the government has already chartered planes for the deportation flights, increased detention space, hired more immigration caseworkers and freed up court space to handle appeals.

How much will this scheme cost the British taxpayer?

The National Audit Office, a public spending watchdog, has estimated it will cost the UK £540 million ($669m) to deport the first 300 migrants – nearly £2 million per person.

Currently, the country is spending more than £3 billion ($3.7bn) a year on processing asylum applications, with the cost of housing migrants awaiting a decision reaching about £8 million ($9.9m) a day.

How effective will this scheme be in dealing with existing asylum claims?

Figures show about 100,000 asylum applications remain to be decided. Charities have said the scheme is unworkable and, given the small numbers involved, would do little to cut the backlog of asylum claims.

“Even on the Government’s best-case scenario, the Rwanda scheme will remove no more than 5,000 people a year out of the tens of thousands of people shut out of the asylum system,” said Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, a UK charity, in an email to Al Jazeera.

“To actually create a fair and controlled asylum system, we need fast and accurate decision-making on asylum claims,” he said. “The government must stop wasting time and money and get back to processing asylum claims,” he said.

Despite the government’s “shouting about the bill” for the past two years, refugees were continuing to arrive on British shores, driven to make the journey because they were “absolutely desperate”, said Valdez-Symonds.

“Since our country is doing nothing at all to take away the circumstances that drive them to make dangerous journeys then we should expect it to continue,” he said. “If you refuse to process claims, then of course you will have a growing backlog.”

Despite the bill’s passage, Sunak looks set to face more legal challenges.

The ECHR could again issue orders to block deportation flights. Earlier this year, ECHR president Siofra O’Leary said there was a “clear obligation” for member states to take account of rule 39 orders, interim injunctions issued by the Strasbourg-based court.

Sunak suggested the government was prepared to ignore the ECHR if it sought to block the deportations. “No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off,” Sunak said. “We are ready, plans are in place, and these flights will go come what may.”

Trade unions have warned they might take legal action. They claim ministers will need parliament to change the civil service code if they want to instruct government staff to ignore ECHR rulings.

The trade union representing border force staff has promised to argue the new legislation is unlawful within days of the first asylum seekers being informed they will be sent to Rwanda.

UN rights experts have suggested that airlines and aviation regulators could fall foul of internationally protected human rights laws if they take part in deportations.

Will this bill stay the course?

With a general election expected later this year – and no later than January next year – Sunak hopes the new law will bolster the flagging fortunes of his Conservative Party, which promised a tougher approach to immigration after the UK left the European Union.

Generally speaking, critics say the bill is a slippery slope, setting a precedent for parliament to legislate on issues already deemed illegal by the courts, a trend that could ultimately damage the UK’s international standing.

“You have to think of the consequences on a political level,” said Valdez-Symonds. “[The UK is saying]: ‘When we make an agreement with you, you may want to bear in mind our promises can’t be trusted because when things don’t suit us, we make unilateral decisions to not abide by them any more’,” he said.

“I can imagine those countries interested in abiding by international law will think dimly of the UK. Those countries who have little care in abiding by human rights law will approve,” he said.

A lack of regard for human rights obligations was a primary driver of people leaving their countries and arriving on British shores in the first place, he noted.

The Conservative Party is currently trailing the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls. Labour has promised to scrap the Rwanda scheme if it comes to power.

Speaking to Sky News, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said on Tuesday that the party would replace this policy with “cross-border policing” and a “new returns and enforcement unit”.

“We are not going to do the Rwanda scheme, because every time you do, you have to write more cheques,” she said.

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