On 12 December cheers erupted in the British Parliament and there was finally a sign of relief for Rishi Sunak. The British Prime Minister had just won one of the most important votes of his premiership by 313 votes to 269. The Rwanda Bill, formally known as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is part of the current government’s promise to fix the country’s ‘broken’ asylum system. Yet it does not come without controversy.
What is the Rwanda Bill?
The government’s plans to collaborate with Rwanda on asylum matters go back to 2022 when Boris Johnson’s government introduced the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership, also known as the Rwanda Scheme, which would allow the UK to send asylum seekers to Rwanda which in turn would either grant them asylum or settlement. The Rwanda Scheme was ruled unlawful by the UK’s Supreme Court which noted “there are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda”.
The Court’s ruling came as a blow to Rishi Sunak. In the days that followed the UK and Rwanda signed a new migration treaty with Home Secretary James Cleverly reiterating the government’s pledge to stop migration. The Rwanda Safety Bill was introduced on 7 December 2023 as an emergency measure which deems Rwanda as a safe country within British law and needs to be treated as such by decision-makers.
Although the Rwanda Safety Bill seems to address the Court’s concerns and successfully passed the second reading at the House of Commons, the rebels within the Conservative Party think that Rishi Sunak is not tough enough when it comes to migration.
“There are two main types of opposition within the Conservative Party,’ says Dr Peter Kerr, Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Birmingham.
“One is from the right who feel that [Sunak’s] Rwanda plan is not tough enough and that it can still be vulnerable to legal challenge; in particular they fear it could be blocked by the European Court of Human Rights. The other key opposition comes from the centrists within the Party who believe that it goes too far and violates international law,” Kerr continues.
If the British press is to be believed, Rishi Sunak fought hard to convince the rebels within his party, as his premiership was threatened by the opposition, who were asking for a general election if the Bill did not pass. Curbing migration is one of Sunak’s top five priorities and he seems fixated on ‘stopping the small boats’.
A Country in Crisis?
In recent years the Conservative Party has been trying to paint a picture of a country in crisis; a dramatisation of reality. In recently released provisional statistics, during 2023, 29,437 people crossed the Channel, which represents a 36% drop in arrivals by small boats compared to 2022, when 47,774 people crossed the Channel.
“The emphasis on the word ‘crisis’ instils in all of us the idea of us being overwhelmed and is looking at blaming people that are moving and seeking safety,” says Julia Tisley-Kent, Policy and Strategic Communications Manager at the Migrants’ Rights Network.
“This is not a migrant crisis but a policy crisis,” she continues emphatically.
The migration policies that the previous and current conservative governments have tried to push indicate that they are willing to violate international humanitarian law and dehumanise asylum seekers in an attempt to appeal to a certain part of their voters as well as hardliners within the Conservative Party, likely in an attempt to maintain power.
From the ‘Illegal Migration Act’ which aims to ‘stop the boats’, to the Bibby Stockholm, an engineless barge that is used to house asylum seekers, which has since been assessed as a discriminatory policy, to finally the Rwanda Bill, which aims to expel those seeking asylum, the UK’s migration policy is cruel.
“The impact [the Rwanda Bill] has had on people awaiting a decision has been awful. The threat of being sent to Rwanda weighs very heavily on people, so even if they are not [sent to Rwanda] they need to keep this in mind,” Tinsley-Kent tells Open Migration.
The UK is infamous for its slow asylum processes and currently there are more than 4,500 cases that are waiting for a decision. The slow process, along with the threat of being sent to Rwanda, creates a lot of insecurity for those waiting.
“I think [the Rwanda Bill] is quite a performative measure. I think they want to be seen to be doing extreme things to appeal to a certain idea,” Tinsley-Kent continues.
Although the UK’s policies and the Government’s divisive language may appeal to certain voters and certain members of the Conservative Party, their outcomes directly target and impact asylum seekers who are constantly used as scapegoats.
The Government’s policies seem to be part of a wider culture war discourse within the Conservative Party, a discourse that wants to see any connection with, or, in fact, any right and liberty, connected to the European Union abolished. Such discourse could potentially weigh heavily on Rishi Sunak’s legacy in British politics.
“Sunak’s Premiership is hard to define. It’s difficult to label him ideologically because on one hand he wants to be seen as a sensible centrist but then, on the other hand, he’s quite happy to engage in some culture war discourses and is happy to take a very hard-line stance on issues around immigration, asylum and other issues around gender. And so, although he wants to be seen as a centrist leader, I think he often gets pulled into making, maybe unwise, culture war interventions,” says Kerr.Sunak seems to have miscalculated his priorities during a time when the UK is at risk of a recession that will impact all social structures. Yet the British government’s migration policies, whether successful or not, could create a precedent that other European countries could seek to follow. One thing is certain: the UK’s migration policies will leave a legacy of cruelty and inhumane treatment of those who seek a safe refuge and a future.