Politics

Sunak admits he will miss his own target of Rwanda flights taking off by spring

Ahead of a parliamentary showdown on the government's Rwanda plan, Rishi Sunak has said the first flights will not leave for 10-12 weeks

Rwanda

The prime minister blamed the Labour Party for delays to the Rwanda bill. Image: YouTube

The first removal flights to Rwanda could leave by the start of July, Rishi Sunak has said ahead of a parliamentary showdown which will bring months of stalemate on the government’s asylum plans to a head.

Peers and MPs will sit in a “ping-pong” session tonight (22 April), with Sunak promising a “regular rhythm of flights” over the summer. Earlier this month, Sunak said he expected the first flights to take off in the spring – but blamed the Labour Party for delays.

First announced in April 2022, the Rwanda plan involves sending asylum seekers to the east African nation to have their claims processed. If they are granted asylum, they will be accommodated in Rwanda.

It has already cost £270m by the end of 2023, but a think tank has warned the eventual cost could hit £3.9bn.

Sunak said both houses will sit until the bill is passed, and added: “No ifs, no buts, these flights are going to Rwanda.”

In a speech in Downing Street, Sunak said an airfield was on standby and commercial charter planes had been booked. The process of removal would start as soon as the bill passes, with flights to leave within 10-12 weeks.

“We are ready, plans are in place, and these flights will go come what may. No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off,” he said.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill, declaring Rwanda to be a safe country, was introduced after the Supreme Court ruled the government’s plans were unlawful. 

Polling from YouGov shows 38% of the public want the government to scrap the policy, 23% have no opinion, 26% want it to pass in its current format, and 14% want to see the policy adapted.

Steve Smith, CEO of Care4Calais, one of the charities which defeated the government in court, said the plan will not stop asylum seekers entering the UK by crossing the Channel in small boats, as Sunak has promised.

“The Rwanda plan is an unworkable, albeit brutal, gimmick that will do nothing to stop Channel crossings,” said Smith. 

“People in Calais are not choosing to risk their lives in the Channel as their preferred route to claim asylum in the UK. It is their only route. The UK government has effectively cut every safe route to claim asylum in the UK, and the only way to stop crossings and save lives is to open new safe routes.”

Peers are trying to add two amendments to the bill: One which would prevent Afghan asylum seekers who had helped British troops from being sent to Rwanda, and another which would set up a committee of experts to monitor the scheme.

This “ping-pong” continues until an agreement is reached between the government and peers, or the Lords gives way to the elected Commons.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman – who previously said it was her “dream” to see flights take off by Christmas 2022 – has warned the legislation won’t “stop the boats” because it’s “fatally flawed” while the UK remains in the European Convention on Human Rights.

“One flight here or there, with a few passengers on it, will not provide the deterrent effect that is necessary,” Braverman told the Today programme.

While Sunak said airlines had agreed to run the first flights, campaigners have previously forced commercial operators to back out of the scheme. Lucy Gregg, acting head of advocacy at Freedom from Torture, which led a campaign to stop Privilege Styles operating deportation flights to Rwanda in 2022, said renewed pressure was needed.

“We urgently need the UK government to start treating refugees with decency and stop trying to send them to an unsafe future in Rwanda. Along with survivors of torture and the support of thousands of caring people up and down the country, we will unite to show airlines that we won’t tolerate them flying in the face of human decency,” said Gregg.  

“Instead of punishing people who’ve already been through so much, we need compassionate, and protection focused policies. It’s time for those in power to stop demonising and scapegoating some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and to restore the right to asylum in the UK and uphold vital international protections.” 

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