Rishi Sunak facing potential rebellion over Rwanda deportation for Afghan allies

The House of Lords backed an amendment to the Rwanda bill which would stop the removal of anyone who supported British armed forces in an ‘exposed or meaningful manner’ from being deported to the east African country

Archie Mitchell
Sunday 17 March 2024 18:23 GMT
Illegal migration minister 'guarantees' Rwanda flights before election

Rishi Sunak is bracing for a rebellion over plans to exempt Afghan heroes who have supported UK troops from being deported to Rwanda.

The House of Lords backed an amendment to the prime minister’s flagship small boats bill which would prevent deportation of anyone who supported British armed forces in an “exposed or meaningful manner” to the east African country.

It comes after extensive reporting by The Independent on the plight of Afghan heroes who helped the British but were left behind after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Rishi Sunak has made stopping the boats one of his key pledges to voters (PA Wire)

And, as the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill this week returns to the House of Commons, MPs are set to vote on whether to strip out amendments made by peers. Labour is poised to back the 10 amendments sent back by peers, including on Afghans, meaning a Tory rebellion could force the PM’s hand.

The amendment was backed by two former chiefs of the defence staff, a former defence secretary and a former British ambassador to the US.

It was one of several defeats for Mr Sunak over the Rwanda bill in the House of Lords this month.

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.

The bill will now go through an extended tussle between the Commons and Lords during “ping-pong”, where legislation is batted between the two Houses until agreement is reached.

The prime minister had previously warned the Lords against frustrating “the will of the people” by hampering the passage of the bill, which has already been approved by MPs.

Mr Sunak’s government is using the bill to try and prevent any legal challenges by asylum seekers to their deportation.

It also currently gives ministers the power to ignore emergency injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights, aiming at clearing the way to send asylum seekers on flights to Rwanda by spring.

The Home Office is considering widening an existing voluntary scheme for migrants to Rwanda (PA Wire)

Other amendments which the PM will seek to strip out of the bill include one that would overturn the government’s plan to oust the domestic courts from the process of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Peers also voted to enable UK courts to consider appeals against age assessment decisions before a person claiming to be an unaccompanied child is removed to Rwanda.

The Afghan amendment was brought forward by former Labour defence secretary Lord Browne of Ladyton, who highlighted his concerns with the proposed law by citing four examples of cases uncovered by The Independent.

They include former members of the Afghan special forces units, known as The Triples, who fought alongside and were paid and trained by the UK special forces. One former senior British diplomat said it “beggared belief” that these soldiers, who were forced to flee the Taliban, could face being deported to the east African country after all they had been through.

Under the terms of the Illegal Migration Act, the government is required to remove illegal migrants who entered the country after 20 July 2023, when the act received royal assent. The act also bans ministers from granting asylum to anyone who entered the UK illegally on or after 7 March 2023, when it had its first reading.

The new clause, which is also being proposed by crossbench peers Lord Houghton of Richmond, Lord Stirrup, and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, would mean that people of any nationality who supported the armed forces overseas in an “exposed or meaningful manner” or who were “employed by or indirectly contracted to provide services to the UK government in an exposed or meaningful manner” would be ineligible for Rwanda deportation. It would also exempt their family members from deportation.

Tory MP Julian Lewis indicated he was “sympathetic” with Afghans at risk due to their work helping British and Nato forces fight the Taliban.

But Mr Lewis said it should not be necessary for them to come to Britain in small boats, which would mean they should not have to risk deportation to Rwanda.

Stephen Kinnock MP, Shadow Immigration Minister, said: “We owe many Afghans a debt of gratitude for supporting British aims in Afghanistan, yet the government’s Operation Warm Welcome has fast become Operation Cold Shoulder.

“It beggar’s belief that, instead of processing their claims, the Tories are leaving them in indefinite limbo, unable to get on with their lives, and threatening to send them to Rwanda. It’s time for the government to rethink.”

A Downing Street source said there were no “particular concerns” about a potential rebellion this week.

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