What’s going on with the Rwanda plan?

What’s going on with the Rwanda plan?

Two years, countless court cases, protests, press conferences, legislation and more - this is the story of the Conservative’s flagship immigration policy.

This week, the Rwanda offshoring plan is back in the headlines. Officially known as the UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership it is essentially a flagship policy of a Government who are pinning all their hopes of “stopping the boats” on the scheme.

The plan would see a (relatively small) number of single men gaining access to the UK via the medium of small vessels ‘illegally’ crossing the channel being given a one-way ticket to Rwanda. Once in the east African nation those who have been deported could make a claim for Asylum or apply for alternative means of settlement. None of those sent to Rwanda would be able to reenter the UK.

The policy has caused heated debate, frantic litigation and taken huge amounts of parliamentary time since it was first announced, just over two years ago. This is the story of the plan so far..


On April 14th 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his Rwanda plan at a press conference in Kent following a visit to the coastline at Dover. Arrivals from so-called illegal* channel crossings have steadily increased over the last five years. Charities and those working in the sector say this is because various other routes “safe and legal” routes have been shut down in successive clampdowns by the Tory Government.

Announcing the scheme Johnson said, “Our compassion may be infinite but our capacity to help people is not. We cannot ask the British taxpayer to write a blank cheque to cover the costs of anyone who might want to come and live here.”

Mr Johnson stated that action was needed to stop “vile people smugglers” turning the channel into a “watery graveyard”. The plan, he claimed, would break the smugglers business model and “save countless lives.”

*The Refugee Convention [1952] includes provisions which protect those successfully claiming Asylum from prosecution for committing offences whilst entering a country.

Johnson stated the plan was “fully compliant with international law” but admitted it would be liable to challenge in the courts by “a formidable army of politically-motivated lawyers.”

At the time, the cost of the scheme was announced as being £120m. The Home Office was approached this morning for confirmation of how much the scheme has cost so far, including extensive legal battles but had not replied at the time of publishing. Refugee organisations referred to the plan as cruel and many questioned its legality.

In the days after the announcement, the most senior Home Office civil servant wrote to then Home Secretary Priti Patel stating that there was little evidence the effect would be "significant enough to make the policy value for money". An emergency demonstration saw hundreds gather outside of the Home Office to demand an end to the scheme.

Hundreds gather to protest the Rwanda plan

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First Flight

Following the announcement of the scheme the first flight was slated to take place on 14th June 2021. Originally briefed as having up to 130 men on it, as the day drew closer legal challenges, protests and political pressure had whittled that number down to around seven.

On Monday 13th June 2021, a challenge to secure a last minute stay of deportations for those due to be on board was rejected by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Throughout 14th June, lawyers, organisers and support workers worked tirelessly behind the scenes to try and find another route to block the deportations. Activists from Stop Deportations blocked roads around Colnbrook detention centre next to London’s Heathrow airport. It was reported that those due to be on the flight were being detained at the centre.

At 7:30pm on Tuesday 14th June, a ruling halting the deportation of one of the men was received from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The ruling set off a series of fresh legal challenges, which saw all men eventually taken off the flight by 22:15pm (just 15 minutes before it was due to depart).

The plane, which had been chartered at an estimated cost of £500,000 according to the BBC, took off empty and returned to Spain.

The Strasbourg court, ruling on the case of an Iraqi man known as KN stated he faced “a real risk of irreversible harm” if he remained on the flight. The ECtHR said that there was no legally enforceable mechanism to ensure KN could return to the UK if his asylum claim in Rwanda failed. It also noted that the UN had raised concerns that UK asylum seekers offshored to Rwanda would not have access to “fair and efficient” procedures to determine their refugee status, adding that the High Court had acknowledged there were serious issues regarding whether Rwanda had been correctly assessed as a safe third country.

Why we blocked the road to stop the Rwanda flight

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Following the blocking of the flight, the plan was challenged in full in the courts. The basis of the challenge centred on its incompatibility with international and domestic human rights legislation, and the rights of asylum seekers as per the refugee convention.

In a ruling handed down at the very end of 2022, the High Court ruled that the plan was indeed lawful, but that the asylum applications of eight people due to have been on the flight in June of that year had to be reconsidered.

In June 2023, the Court of Appeal overturned this ruling, stating that the plan was unlawful. The ruling came on the basis of evidence before the High Court from Refugee organisations which stated there were substantial grounds for believing there were real risks that asylum claims would not be properly determined by the Rwandan authorities.

The following November, in a blow to the government, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeal, stating that genuine refugees would be at risk of being returned to their home countries (a practice known as refoulement) where they could face harm. This breaches both the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which prohibits torture and inhuman treatment. The UK is a signatory to both.

The Supreme Court also cited concerns about Rwanda’s poor human-rights record and its past treatment of refugees.

The fight against the Refugee ban will be won on the streets

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Following the ruling of the Supreme Court, the government introduced “emergency legislation” to make clear that Rwanda is a “safe country”. The legislation orders the courts to disregard key sections of the Human Rights Act in an attempt to sidestep the Supreme Court’s judgement. It compels courts to disregard other domestic laws and international rules, like the Refugee Convention, which stand in the way of deportations to Rwanda. It also empowers Ministers to disregard injunctions and rulings from the European Court of Human Rights.

The legislation has been hugely controversial. MPs have criticised the legislation because they believe it breaks international law, whilst others have stated that it doesn’t go far enough. In January, as the bill was introduced to Parliament, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak narrowly avoided a defeat as warring factions within the Conservative party threatened to derail the passage of it.

The bill passed its third reading in the Commons and passed to the Lords on 17th January. Since then the bill has been ‘ping-ponging’ between the two houses, as Lords try to insert amendments to temper or kill parts of the legislation.

The House of Commons has voted down every amendment to the legislation so far apart from an obligation to report on the removal of human trafficking victims to Rwanda. As of this afternoon (22nd April), there are two Lords amendments outstanding (approved in the Lords on 17th April).

These are Monitoring Committee sign-off amendment by Lord Hope of Craighead, which would require independent monitors to certify that the UK-Rwanda treaty has been implemented before Rwanda can be treated as a conclusively safe country, and an Exception for Afghans amendment by Lord Browne of Ladyton, which would stop Afghans who fought alongside British forces from being removed to Rwanda, as well as other UK allies.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this morning publicly rebuked “Labour Lords” for holding up the progress of the bill (despite the large number of crossbench peers supporting the amendments) promising that the legislation would be passed today. He has repeatedly stated that MPs will sit for “as long as it takes”, with the potential for votes to run late into the night and early into the morning of 23rd April.

For live updates on the passage of the bill, check out ourTwitter

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