British Home Secretary James Cleverly arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday to sign a new treaty to send asylum seekers to the African nation after the UK’s top court declared the deportation scheme unlawful.
The Rwanda plan is at the centre of the government’s strategy to cut migration and is being watched closely by other countries considering similar policies.
But the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court last month ruled that such a move would violate international human rights laws enshrined in domestic legislation.
Since that ruling, Britain has been seeking to renegotiate its agreement with Rwanda to include a binding treaty that it would not expel asylum seekers sent there by Britain – one of the court’s major concerns.
Cleverly, who arrived in Rwanda’s capital Kigali on Tuesday morning, is due to meet with the country’s foreign minister, Vincent Biruta, to sign the agreement.
“Rwanda cares deeply about the rights of refugees, and I look forward to meeting with counterparts to sign this agreement and further discuss how we work together to tackle the global challenge of illegal migration,” Cleverly said.
Under the plan, Britain intends to send thousands of asylum seekers who arrived on its shores without permission to Rwanda to deter migrants crossing the Channel from Europe in small boats.
In return, Rwanda has received an initial payment of 140 million pounds ($180 million) with the promise of more money to fund the accommodation and care of any deported individuals.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under intense pressure to cut net migration, which hit a record 745,000 last year, and end the flow of asylum seekers who pay people smugglers for their Channel crossings, often in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats.
Britain’s immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the government had to act because those arriving on small boats were effectively breaking into the country.
“The law says you can’t enter the country illegally. If you or I crossed an international border, we literally broke into another country, we would expect to be treated very seriously,” he told Sky News.
The vast majority of those arriving in Britain came via legal routes, and the government also announced plans to cut those numbers on Monday, raising the minimum salary they must earn in a skilled job.
Ministers are also expected to publish new legislation soon, declaring Rwanda a so-called safe country, designed to stop legal challenges against the planned deportation flights.
“Stop the boats” is one of five goals Sunak set for his government before a national election expected next year.
The Supreme Court ruled the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful because there was a risk that deported refugees would have their claims wrongly assessed or returned to their country of origin to face persecution.
The court said the plan breached international undertakings – including the European Convention on Human Rights, the United Nations’ Refugee Convention and Convention against Torture.
There are growing tensions in the Conservative Party over how to respond, with some members of parliament putting pressure on the government to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, after the European Court of Human Rights originally blocked deportation flights from leaving.
This year almost 29,000 people have arrived on the southern English coast without permission, after a record 45,755 were detected in 2022.
The Rwanda policy was originally announced by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year, but no asylum seekers have been sent to the country yet.
Critics, ranging from opposition lawmakers as well as some Conservatives to church leaders and the United Nations refugee agency, have argued the policy is flawed, a waste of money, immoral and simply would not work.