LONDON — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Thursday he would “do what is necessary” to revive a blocked deal to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, even if it means ignoring U.K. human rights laws.
During a hastily scheduled news conference, Sunak vowed to press on with a plan that has roiled the governing Conservative Party and threatened his leadership.
He said that a new bill designed to override a U.K. Supreme Court ruling will end “the merry-go-round of legal challenges” that have prevented the government acting on its agreement with Rwanda to put migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel on a one-way trip to the East African country.
“We will get flights off the ground,” Sunak said.
Many European countries and the U.S. are struggling with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.
Britain’s Rwanda plan is one of the more novel responses, though critics say it’s both unethical and unworkable to send migrants — many of them fleeing conflict-scarred countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq — to a nation 4,000 miles away with no chance of ever settling in the U.K.
But Sunak’s main political threat comes from members of his party who think his plan is not harsh enough. The prime minister’s authority was challenged when Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick quit the government late Wednesday, saying the government’s bill “does not go far enough” and won’t work.
The Rwanda plan is central to the U.K. government’s self-imposed goal to keep unauthorized asylum-seekers trying to reach England from France in small boats. More than 29,000 people have done that this year, and 46,000 in 2022.
Britain and Rwanda agreed on a deal in April 2022 under which migrants who cross the Channel would be sent to Rwanda, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay. Rwanda, which is already home to thousands of refugees from African countries, agreed to the deal after Britain paid it 140 million pounds ($175 million) upfront.
The U.K. government argues the deportations will discourage others from making the risky sea crossing and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs.
No one has yet been sent to Rwanda under the plan, which has faced multiple legal challenges. Last month, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the plan was illegal because Rwanda isn’t a safe country for refugees, whom judges said face “a real risk of ill-treatment.”
The U.K. government has refused to drop the plan. This week Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s government says the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination.
The government says the law will allow it to “disapply” sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims and make it harder to challenge the deportations in court.