LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic groups in Britain have joined over 250 organizations in a statement condemning a bill submitted by the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to send some asylum seekers from the UK to the African nation of Rwanda.
The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords Monday. The government says the change is necessary to prevent dangerous boat crossings of the English Channel by migrants.
The government’s plan, originally floated under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, would stop legal challenges against sending asylum seekers to the other country. The plan had been rejected by the UK Supreme Court, which late last year ruled Rwanda was unsafe for asylum seekers.
An official spokesman for Sunak said the new proposed law is a “key part of how we stop violent criminal gangs targeting vulnerable people that has led to too many deaths in the English Channel.”
“It is also the fair thing to do both for taxpayers and for those individuals seeking to come here through safe and legal routes who see their place jumped by those who can afford to make crossings on small boats,” he told the BBC.
A statement signed by 265 civil society organizations, including several Catholic ones, called for the new bill – designed to not face the court – to be rejected.
The statement, which was coordinated by the NGO called Liberty, condemns the bill as undermining human rights protection and attacking the role of the judiciary and the rule of law.
It also accuses the proposed legislation of undermining the international system of refugee protection and international law – in particular, by stating that UK authorities should consider Rwanda a safe country regardless of “any interpretation of international law by the court or tribunal.”
“The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is a constitutionally extraordinary and deeply harmful piece of legislation. It threatens the universality of human rights and is likely in breach of international law, striking a serious blow to the UK’s commitment to the rule of law. It was not a Government manifesto commitment – on the contrary, it will hinder the UK’s ability to ‘continue to grant asylum and support to refugees ﬂeeing persecution’ … we call on Peers to reject the Bill,” the statement says.
The statement objects to the way the proposed legislation expands powers given to the government to ignore interim measures of the European Convention on Human Rights that prevent the transfer of refugees and prohibits UK courts from hearing appeals on the law.
“The Rwanda scheme is an attempt by the UK Government to shirk its obligations to consider asylum claims and support those granted protection as part of the international refugee protection system,” the statement says.
“Even more alarmingly, the Bill states that the Government and courts should treat Rwanda as a safe country, regardless of ‘any interpretation of international law by the court or tribunal.’ This extreme provision will damage the UK’s international reputation and ability to hold other states to account for human rights abuses,” it continues.
Sarah Teather, the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service which signed the appeal, called the proposed legislation “cruel and risible.”
She also condemned the fact there has been much discussion about its implications for politicians’ careers.
“We urge policy-makers to remember that this isn’t about party politics pantomime. If enacted, the Rwanda scheme will destroy the lives of people who have already lost everything. It is these people- men, women, and children- who should be foremost in this discussion. For them, we continue to oppose this Bill and the Rwanda scheme as a whole,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Lord David Alton – a leading Catholic member of the House of Lords – said It is the job of the UK Parliament is “to hear different views and to assess the arguments carefully.”
“Too often, we pass legislation in haste and repent at leisure. The treaty before us, the Bill that will come and that which we already considered in 2023—the Illegal Migration Act [the legislation rejected by the UK Supreme Court] —are examples of that,” he said.
“Let us recall that eight out of 10 refugees — many millions — end up in neighboring countries, not in the United Kingdom, so there are plenty of other countries which need to join an international alliance and promote an international strategy,” Alton continued.
He said that at a minimum, the conservative government needs to say what has changed on the ground in Rwanda since the Supreme Court decision.
“What evidence do they have, for instance, in regard to political oppression or LGBT people? What examination have the government made of the reasons why Burundi has closed its borders with Rwanda, and of Rwanda’s links with the M23 militias in the eastern DRC — what analysis has been made of that?” Alton asked.
He also called for a government response to the 2023 Human Rights Watch report stating that commentators, journalists, opposition activists, and others “speaking out on current affairs and criticizing public policies in Rwanda continued to face abusive prosecutions, enforced disappearances, and have at times died under unexplained circumstances.”
The British Lord mentioned that he visited Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide and saw terrible mass graves and admitted huge strides have been made to recover from the deaths of between half a million and 800,000 people, but he added, “it is deceptive to describe Rwanda as a safe country for refoulement.”
“It is passing strange that we have five alleged genocidaires living in the UK that we have not sent back to Rwanda, for fear that they would be at real risk of not receiving a fair trial if returned. The primary issue in those extradition proceedings was whether they were at real risk of a flagrant denial of justice if returned to Rwanda; they expressed fears that they would be tortured and executed,” Alton said.