Rwanda Bill to become law - what is the policy and what happens next?

What is the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill? ITV News' Yasmin Bodalbhai explains, with words by Elisa Menendez, Westminster Producer

After two years of legal and parliamentary wrangling, the government’s controversial Rwanda Bill is to become law.

After the Bill passed its final hurdle in the Lords on Monday night, ending the parliamentary deadlock, the government will now have the right to deport some asylum seekers to the east African country - and hopes to do so in a matter of weeks.

Despite already costing the UK taxpayer £240 million, the scheme has not yet seen any flights take off after being plagued by delays and controversy.

And the government’s fight is not yet over - it must now overcome the hurdle of getting the flights off the ground.

Human rights groups have condemned the scheme as a “breach of international law”, saying it poses “a significant threat to the rule of law” by undermining what protects people from an abuse of power by the state, and described Parliament as a “crime scene”.

ITV News understands at least one charity is preparing to launch its next legal bid to challenge individual asylum cases, while the United Nations issued a warning to airlines preparing to facilitate the government's deportation flights.

What is the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill?

As part of a five-year UK Government plan to tackle migration, some asylum seekers arriving in the UK will be sent to the east African country under the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.

There, the Rwandan government will decide on their claim and if successful, they will be granted refugee status and allowed to stay. If unsuccessful, they can apply to stay in Rwanda on other grounds or seek asylum in a different “safe third country”. However, they will not be permitted to apply to seek asylum in the UK.

After being blighted by legal challenges and delays ever since the policy was announced in 2022 by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, this version of the Bill was drafted as a solution to a Supreme Court ruling last year that concluded Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers.

Home Secretary James Cleverly meeting Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Vincent Biruta in December. Credit: PA

After the Supreme Court blocked the Bill by ruling it unlawful, the government came up with a two-pronged solution: a new treaty with Rwanda and the "emergency" Safety of Rwanda Bill to declare it is a safe country.

Rishi Sunak's Bill gives ministers the power to disregard sections of the Human Rights Act and the power to ignore emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

What will happen to those previously scheduled for deportation and how many could be sent to Rwanda?

The government already has a list of people on standby to be sent to Rwanda, who are likely to receive correspondence from the Home Office soon informing them of their fate.

Rishi Sunak told journalists on Tuesday he would not say anything further than "we've identified the initial cohort of people for the first flights - people who have been already denied asylum or their claims have been deemed inadmissible."

It is understood they are expected to be given at least seven days' notice informing them that they could be put on a flight. After that period, officials can confirm they will be put on a flight around five days later, it is understood.

During this period it is not clear where they will be held, though some will be detained.

Those contacted for deportation can use this time to appeal the decision.

Charities are expected to intervene at this stage to support appeals and ITV News understands at least one will launch legal bids to prevent their clients being put on flights, which the Home Office will assess.

The scheme has been plagued by controversy and legal challenges. Credit: PA

However, if they are unsuccessful, they will be deported when the government arranges the flights - the first of which are earmarked for the end of July.

There is no limit on the number of people who could be sent to Rwanda, with the government describing it as an "uncapped scheme" - but it would not say how many it expects to send on the first flights.

In theory, an estimated 52,000 people who are in the UK illegally seeking asylum could be removed, according to the Home Office. They have come to the UK to seek safety - with many having made the perilous journey across the English Channel on a small boat - but have not yet had a decision made on their asylum claim.

They are based in Home Office-funded accommodation, such as hotels, and cannot work in the UK.

Two asylum seekers, who could face deportation to Rwanda, told ITV News last week they had been informed they will be moved from a London hotel to the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset.

The government would not be drawn on exactly how it will choose who will be taken to Rwanda first and whether there is a specific criteria. The government would not say whether it would use the methodology of a so-called "first in, first out" process, as some ministers had previously suggested.

"The more detail I give you, the more ammunition for those who don't want this policy to succeed," Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson told ITV News.

The prime minister appeared confident that should any legal cases arise, the government has the capability to challenge them.

He told a press conference on Monday: “To detain people while we prepare to remove them, we’ve increased detention spaces to 2,200. To quickly process claims, we’ve got 200 trained, dedicated caseworkers ready and waiting.

“To deal with any legal cases quickly and decisively, the judiciary have made available 25 courtrooms and identified 150 judges who could provide over 5,000 sitting days.

“The Strasbourg court has amended their rule 39 procedures in line with the test set out in our Illegal Migration Act.

"And we’ve put beyond all doubt that ministers can disregard these injunctions with clear guidance that if they decide to do so, civil servants must deliver that instruction and most importantly, once the processing is complete, we will physically remove people."

However, Mr Sunak could face uproar within his own ranks, as he faces threats the FDA union representing civil servants could launch a legal review against the scheme because officials don't want to enact it.

The prime minister said civil servants "will be expected to follow ministerial guidance".

How soon could the flights take off?

On Monday, the prime minister vowed the first one-way flight to Rwanda will set off in 10-12 weeks, warning: "Those flights will go come what may".

After that, there will be “multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond”, he said.

The prime minister added that there are around 500 "highly trained individuals ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda, with 300 more trained in the coming weeks".

Ahead of the Bill passing, the PM said the government “put an airfield on standby” and “booked commercial charter planes”, alongside a wave of other measures.

But reports have suggested the Home Office has struggled to find an airline to facilitate the flights, with Rwanda’s state-owned airline reportedly turning down a proposal because it didn’t want to be associated with the controversial scheme.

Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson on Tuesday would not say whether the government has found an airline or aviation operator and reiterated Downing Street's stance that they will not share "operational details" yet - fuelling suspicion that they are still struggling to find an operator.

Sources previously told ITV News’ Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana that AirTanker – which would call itself an aviation services provider – was considering whether to operate flights to Rwanda on behalf of the UK Government. AirTanker has not commented on the speculation.

The company, which provides jets to the RAF, pledged to non-profit Freedom From Torture two years ago that it would not.

Freedom From Torture has urged AirTanker against getting involved and claimed tens of thousands have written to the company supporting its fight.

The United Nations (UN) issued a statement on Monday expressing "concern" about the role of airlines and aviation regulators in facilitating the UK Government's "unlawful removals" to Rwanda.

It stressed that removing asylum seekers to Rwanda or any other country "where they would be at risk of refoulement would violate the right to be free from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment".

"Even if the UK-Rwanda agreement and the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ bill are approved, airlines and aviation regulators could be complicit in violating internationally protected human rights and court orders by facilitating removals to Rwanda," UN experts said.

“If airlines and aviation authorities give effect to State decisions that violate human rights, they must be held responsible for their conduct.

“As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights underline, aviation regulators, international organisations and business actors are required to respect human rights."

Labour's Shadow Home Office Minister Stephen Kinnock told the Commons last week the government is still trying to “scramble high and low” for an airline to be associated with the “unworkable, unaffordable and unlawful” scheme.

It was also reported that properties earmarked for the scheme in the capital Kigali have instead been sold off to locals, according to The Times.

What have MPs and Peers said?

Ministers in support of the Bill hope the Rwanda scheme will act as a deterrent to those entering the UK illegally - particularly people crossing the English Channel on small boats – as part of Mr Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats”.

But human rights and refugee charities have insisted there is no evidence the scheme will work as a deterrent.

Just hours after the Bill was passed, the French Coastguard confirmed on Tuesday morning that five people, including a four-year-old girl, died attempting to cross the Channel from France in a small boat carrying more than 112 people.

A group of people are brought in to Dover, Kent, by Border Force following a fatal small boat incident in the Channel. Credit: PA

This year alone, 6,000 people have made the perilous journey across the Channel, with more than 75,000 arrivals recorded two years on from the Rwanda deal being signed.

Labour has insisted the Bill "covers just 1% of asylum seekers in the UK, with Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper slamming it as “an extortionately expensive gimmick rather than a serious plan to tackle dangerous boat crossings”.

“The Rwanda scheme will cost more than half-a-billion pounds for just 300 people, less than 1% of asylum seekers here in the UK – and there is no plan for the 99%,” she said.

Labour says if it were to win the next general election it would get rid of the Rwanda scheme and would instead put the money into boosting Border Force.

Migration was listed as one of Mr Sunak's key pledges when he became prime minister - and he hopes it will form part of the legacy of his premiership and crucially, will satisfy voters concerned about migration particularly ahead of the May 2 local elections.

He has seen three home secretaries, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman and now James Cleverly, working to get the Bill over the line.

But the Bill has divided parliamentary opinion - with some on the right of the Tory Party arguing the policy does not go far enough, while opposition MPs, peers and others within the Conservative party say it is too harsh and breaches human rights laws.

In January, two former Conservative deputy chairmen, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigned from their positions in protest over amendments to the Bill arguing it was essentially being watered down. Just the month before, then-Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick also quit.

All eyes fell on the House of Lords on Monday night, where Mr Sunak had told parliamentarians that "enough is enough" and they must stay until the early hours if necessary to end parliamentary deadlock and pass the Bill.

The Bill had been subject to further parliamentary "ping pong" after peers insisted they would not pass it until their two amendments were included.

These included an exemption for agents, allies and employees of the UK overseas, such as Afghans who fought alongside the British armed forces, from being removed to Rwanda.

The other was that Rwanda cannot be treated as a safe country until an independent monitoring body has verified that protections contained in the treaty are fully implemented and remain in place.

After tussling over the two amendments late into the night, peers finally backed down and they were not included in the Bill.

What has held up plans for two years?

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson first announced the Rwanda deportation plans in April 2022.

Just two months later, in June, the first deportation flight carrying seven asylum seekers was scheduled to set off. But it was grounded minutes before take-off after judges at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) granted an injunction blocking it.

The last-ditch legal rulings sparked calls by some Conservative MPs to pull Britain out of the ECHR – a debate still ongoing among some.

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In December 2022, the UK High Court ruled the government's Rwanda policy lawful, but ordered the cases of the first deportees to be reconsidered.

In March 2023, a High Court judge ruled that asylum seekers facing removal to Rwanda can appeal against Home Office decisions over alleged errors in the consideration of whether relocation poses a risk to their human rights - dealing another blow to the plan.

In June 2023, the Court of Appeal ruled the scheme unlawful – overruling the UK’s High Court decision that declared it lawful.

In July 2023, the government was given the go-ahead to take the legal battle over the policy to the UK Supreme Court.

In November 2023, the Supreme Court ruled Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers and blocked the policy by ruling it unlawful.

This prompted Sunak’s administration to introduce new legislation, called the ‘Safety of Rwanda’ Bill, in December to get flights off the ground.

The Commons deemed the African republic safe by majority vote in January, this year. But the Bill once again suffered a series of defeats when it moved to the Lords amid fears it risked breaching international law.

This set off another round of political “ping pong” between the Commons and the Lords.

Frustrated by multiple challenges in the courts and the extended tussle between the Commons and Lords, in March the Home Office announced plans to offer £3,000 to asylum seekers to voluntarily go to Rwanda.

Later last month, the House of Lords voted against several changes to the legislation – continuing the ping pong. This once again sent the Bill back to the Commons and the Lords last week, where peers again insisted they would not pass it until their two amendments were included.

Once again, the Bill was ping-ponged back to the Commons and Lords on Monday night, before which the frustrated prime minister told MPs and peers they would stay until the early hours of the morning to end the deadlock.

The Bill will now receive Royal Assent, formally enacting it into law.

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