Rishi Sunak says first migrant flight from U.K. to Rwanda will leave in 10-12 weeks

Rishi Sunak said he was “confident” that the plan complied with all of Britain’s international obligation

April 22, 2024 03:50 pm | Updated 07:40 pm IST - LONDON

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference at Downing Street on April 22, 2024 in London, England.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference at Downing Street on April 22, 2024 in London, England. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on April 22 said he would push through a parliamentary vote on his government’s highly controversial Rwanda deportation legislation, as he promised that flights would begin taking asylum seekers to Rwanda in 10-12 weeks.

A record number — just under 5,000 — people had arrived in the U.K. on boats via the English Channel in the first quarter of this year according to U.K. Government data. Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh were the top five countries of origin for migrants arriving in boats in 2023.

“Parliament will sit there tonight — and vote — no matter how late it goes,” Mr. Sunak said a press conference in Downing Street on Monday. The House of Commons and Lords were scheduled to consider the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) bill on Monday.

The House of Lords — where Mr. Sunak’s Conservative party does not have a majority — had passed amendments last week to exempt Afghan asylum seekers who had helped British operations in Afghanistan and to establish an independent body to review Rwanda’s asylum system.

Also Read | British PM Rishi Sunak unveils 5-step illegal immigration clampdown

Immigration is a highly sensitive issue in the U.K., which is moving towards a general election in the second half of 2024. The initial plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda was announced by the Boris Johnson Government in 2022. The policy has faced numerous legal challenges, including from the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) and no flights to Rwanda have taken off to date.

The current version of the Rwanda bill declares that Rwanda is a safe country to send asylum seekers — a clause designed to circumvent a November 2023 U.K. Supreme Court ruling that said the policy (as it existed at the time) was unlawful.

The deportation process would kick off as soon as the vote was over, Mr. Sunak said, as he outlined some of the preparations — from courtrooms to security escorts and flight slots.

ALSO READ | The U.K.-Rwanda asylum plan explained

“The first flight will leave in 10-12 weeks,” the Prime Minister said, implying that the earlier declared spring deadline would not be met. He said multiple flights would take place through the summer (June-August) and beyond.

The Conservatives have focused on the role of people smuggling gangs as part of their messaging around the deportation bill and Mr. Sunak, on Monday, said the gangs were currently targeting vulnerable Vietnamese migrants, whose numbers had “increased tenfold” and who accounted for “almost all” the increase in migrant-carrying small boats arriving across the English Channel.

Mr. Sunak’s party has trailed the opposition Labour Party in polls for some time and stopping the boat crossings has been one of the Prime Minister’s pledges. On Monday, he accused Labour of not having a plan to prevent boat crossings and was “resigned to the idea that you will never fully solve this problem”.

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