Rwanda bill: Defiant Lords back Afghan heroes and refuse to pass Sunak’s plan to deport asylum seekers

Downing Street has refused any concessions and insists flights will take off by summer

Holly Bancroft,Kate Devlin
Wednesday 17 April 2024 21:19 BST
Home Office minister ignores question whether government has airline for Rwanda scheme

A defiant House of Lords has refused to cave to ministers and sent Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda plan back to the Commons – with two key demands.

Peers voted on Wednesday night in favour of an amendment to the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill that would exempt Afghan heroes who supported UK troops overseas from being deported.

They also insisted on a monitoring committee to assess whether Rwanda is safe before the government sends asylum seekers there.

MPs have refused to make concessions to their plan to deport asylum seekers to the east African country, with Downing Street insisting the bill is “the right way forward”.

But members of the Lords refused to back down, meaning that the bill will return to the Commons again – most likely on Monday. MPs are expected to vote down the changes again, forcing it back to the Lords.

Rishi Sunak has promised to send asylum seekers to Rwanda this spring (AFP/PA)

Peers voted 245 in favour and 208 against an amendment to make an independent monitoring panel verify that certain measures are in place before Rwanda is declared a safe country.

They also voted 247-195 in favour of the Afghan amendment, a majority of 52.

The Independent has documented several cases of asylum seekers who supported the UK armed forces efforts in Afghanistan and who have since been threatened with removal to Rwanda after arriving in the UK via small boat.

Together with Lighthouse Reports and Sky News, this publication reported on the plight of members of two Afghan special forces units, known as the Triples, who have been wrongly denied help by the Ministry of Defence. Several of these soldiers have made their way to the UK via small boats because they felt no safe or legal routes were open to them.

A few hundred of these soldiers are also stranded in Pakistan, waiting on the outcome of a Ministry of Defence review into whether they were wrongly refused relocation to the UK.

Senior Tory MP Sir Robert Buckland told the Commons on Wednesday to support the Lords’ plan to help these Afghans, saying: “I do think that there is still a class of people who have served this country, who have been brave and have exposed themselves to danger, who have not yet been dealt with.

“Many of them are in Pakistan, and I think that it would have been helpful to have perhaps seen an amendment in lieu to deal with that point.”

Des Browne brought an amendment to the government’s Rwanda bill that would protect allies of the British armed forces from deportation (PA)

The amendment to the Rwanda bill, brought by former defence secretary Lord Browne of Ladyton, would exempt those who can show that they supported British troops in missions overseas from being sent to Rwanda.

Two former chiefs of defence staff are among their lordships who supported the clause, which the government have so far refused to concede on.

Lord Browne told peers on Wednesday they had expected to hear a statement of assurance from the government that these soldiers would not be deported to Rwanda. This statement was retracted at the last minute because of a decision made by No 10, he said.

“Now is the time to give these people the sanctuary their bravery has earned,” he said, warning ministers: “It is time they learnt the political consequences of their failure not to give either an assurance that is bankable or to accept this amendment. Because there is little if any support in your lordships’ House for their failure to do this and there certainly no majority support in the country to treat these brave people this way.”

Lord Coaker, shadow home affairs spokesperson in the Lords, said the amendment calling for a monitoring committee “simply makes the bill make sense”.

“Why on earth would the government oppose that particular amendment?” he asked. “It’s one of those things that is completely unbelievable.”

Earlier, Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson had urged peers to pass the bill, saying that it would “send a clear signal that if you come to the United Kingdom illegally, you will not be able to stay”.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom told peers that MPs had “already considered and rejected” the favoured amendments several times.

Mr Sunak, who has made stopping the boats one of his five key pledges, was left scrambling to save his flagship plan after the Supreme Court ruled it unlawful late last year.

In a damning judgment, the highest court in the land found that there was a real risk asylum seekers sent to Rwanda could be returned to their home countries to face “persecution or other inhumane treatment”.

In response, Mr Sunak pledged new “emergency” legislation to get flights in the air.

The National Audit Office recently calculated that, if 300 people are eventually sent to Rwanda, the cost will amount to £1.8 million per deportee.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in