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Rwanda deportation flights to take off 'come what may': UK's Sunak

  Peter HUTCHISON - AFP
Rwanda Sunak told Lords not to delay the Rwanda bill further.  By Toby Melville POOLAFP
MON, 22 APR 2024 LISTEN
Sunak told Lords not to delay the Rwanda bill further. By Toby Melville (POOL/AFP)

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday promised to begin deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda in coming months as part of a plan to deter arrivals that has sparked controversy.

"We are ready, plans are in place and these flights will go, come what may," Sunak told a Downing Street news conference, hours before parliament is set to approve a key part of the proposal.

Sunak says it is essential to deter record numbers of asylum seekers crossing the Channel to England from France in small boats and has made it a key pillar of his Conservative party's pitch to voters.

Care4Calais, a charity that supports asylum seekers, called the plan an unworkable and cruel "gimmick".

The new bill compels judges to regard the east African nation as a safe third country and gives ministers the power to disregard sections of international and British human rights law.

The legislation is Sunak's answer to a UK Supreme Court ruling last year that sending migrants to Rwanda was illegal under international law.

"Enough is enough. No more prevarication. No more delay," Sunak told reporters, adding that he envisaged "multiple" flights a month over the summer months.

The UK is due to go to the polls in a general election later this year.

The Tories, who promised tighter immigration after the UK left the European Union, are expected to be trounced by the main opposition Labour party, after 14 years in power.

More than 120,000 people have crossed the Channel on rudimentary vessels since 2018, when the government started recording numbers, and dozens have died, according to monitors.

But the Tories' flagship scheme has been mired in difficulties and legal challenges since it was first proposed by Boris Johnson in May 2022 when he was prime minister.

That year, the first deportees were pulled off a flight at the last minute, after an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

So far no migrants have been sent to Rwanda.

The National Audit Office, a public spending watchdog, has estimated it will cost the UK £540 million ($665 million) to deport the first 300 migrants -- nearly £2 million per person.

Amendments

The government has said it will not concede to two amendments sought by the unelected upper chamber House of Lords when members of the elected House of Commons lower chamber considers them on Monday afternoon.

One seeks exemption from deportation for people who worked with the UK military overseas, such as Afghan interpreters.

The other asks that an independent monitor be established to determine whether Rwanda is in fact safe.

Lords are expected to concede defeat eventually, recognising that they are unelected and their roles are largely focused on scrutinising legislation and proposing amendments.

Once the legislation is passed, it is expected to receive royal assent later this week, officially putting it on the statute book.

Sunak said the government has put an airfield on standby and has booked commercial charter planes for the first flight.

UN rights experts suggested that airlines and aviation regulators could be "complicit" in violating internationally protected human rights if they take part.

Sunak pledged a "regular rhythm" of multiple flights across the summer and beyond "until the boats have stopped".

But his plans could still be help up by legal challenges.

While Rwanda -- a tiny nation of 13 million people -- lays claim to being one of the most stable countries in Africa, rights groups accuse President Paul Kagame of ruling in a climate of fear, stifling dissent and free speech.

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