MPs voted on Tuesday night on the government’s plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The “second reading” passed with a 44-vote majority, despite government fears of a defeat, meaning the draft law can now move to the next stage.

So, what is the Rwanda bill and why is it controversial?

FactCheck takes a look.

What is the government’s new Rwanda bill?

The “Safety of Rwanda” bill seeks to send some asylum seekers who arrive in Britain via “irregular routes” to the east African nation to have their claims processed. The idea is to deter people who might cross the Channel in small boats from making the journey.

(As FactCheck previously reported, under existing British law, it’s illegal to enter the country without a visa or special permission. But people who make the Channel crossing are protected by international law if they claim asylum once they arrive.)

The plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda was first announced in April 2022 with the first flight scheduled in June the same year. But this was postponed after legal challenges, and no asylum seeker has actually been sent there.

The UK Supreme Court ruled in November 2023 that the initial version of the plan was unlawful due to the risk that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda could be returned to their home countries, where they could face harm. This is known in law as “refoulement” – which countries including the UK are obliged to make sure doesn’t happen. (FactCheck looked at the details of the ruling last month.)

In response to this, the government signed a new treaty with Rwanda with the aim of strengthening its asylum processes and assuaging the Supreme Court’s concerns.

Home Secretary James Cleverley said the revised treaty guarantees that any people sent to Rwanda to claim asylum would not be at risk of refoulement.

The treaty also includes other provisions such as a new independent monitoring committee to ensure Rwanda complies with its obligations and the UK paying for British and Commonwealth judges to preside over a new appeals process.

The UK will also pay the accommodation and living expenses of people relocated to Rwanda for up to five years.

But even this revised plan – and the bill that the government is trying to pass to give it effect – remains controversial.

Will the Rwanda plan put people off crossing in small boats?

One reason for the controversy is that we don’t know how much it will deter people from making the journey across the Channel.

Sir Matthew Rycroft, the most senior civil servant at the Home Office, said during a Public Accounts Committee meeting on 11 December “we don’t have evidence of a deterrent effect” in regards to the Rwanda plan.

He said on 29 November, during a Home Affairs Committee meeting: “Clearly, something is deterring people from crossing the channel, because the numbers are over a third down on last year. At the beginning of the year, we were expecting, as our best case, the numbers to be as high as they were last year. Something is deterring people.”

Sir Matthew added: “It is very hard to tell how much of that is the possibility of being relocated to Rwanda, particularly, as you suggest, before the first flights to Rwanda have taken off.

Though the home secretary James Cleverly said on 6 December: “Other countries have since copied our plans with Rwanda, and we know from interviews that the prospect of being relocated out of the UK has already had a deterrent effect.”

Rwanda’s human rights record and international law

Concerns have also been raised over Rwanda’s human rights record, which the Supreme Court referenced in its recent ruling.

It said “Rwanda is a country which has emerged from one of the most appalling periods of violence in modern history”, referencing the 1994 genocide, and although it has “made great progress economically and socially”, its “record in relation to human rights has been much criticised”.

Another issue, raised by the so-called One Nation group of Conservatives, who are generally considered less right wing than some of their colleagues, is whether any future amendments could potentially see the government breaching its international obligations.

Damian Green MP, speaking to reporters after a One Nation group meeting which was held prior to the vote, said: “We support the bill unamended, but if anyone brings forward any amendments that breach our international obligations or breach the rule of law, we vote against those amendments at future stages.”

The Law Society’s chief executive, Ian Jeffery, said of the latest draft law: “The bill creates a statutory obligation that every decision maker, including the courts, must treat Rwanda as a safe country.”

He described this as “damaging to both the rule of law and the constitutional separation of powers. While parliament has the right to respond to a court judgement by passing legislation to change a point of domestic law, it cannot use law to change fact.”

The Home Office’s policy paper on the Safety of Rwanda bill says: “The government is satisfied that the measures do address all of the concerns identified by the Supreme Court and make Rwanda a safe country to send migrants and meet our respective international obligations.”

What happens if someone commits a crime in Rwanda?

Some MPs have raised objections about provisions in the treaty that mean the UK could have to take back someone who committed a crime in Rwanda.

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper noted that the terms of the treaty means “if someone commits a terrible crime in Rwanda, the Rwandan justice system does not have to deal with them, but can just send those criminals back to the UK”.

But Downing Street said people sent to Rwanda would only return in “exceptional” circumstances. The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Anyone who commits a crime in Rwanda having been relocated, they will be expected to serve their sentence in Rwanda.

“There are hypothetical circumstances, exceptional circumstances in which individuals could be returned to the UK.” But, he added, “as a first position, if you commit a crime in Rwanda, you’re serving your sentence in Rwanda.”

Minister Chris Philp told LBC that if someone who’d committed a crime did end up coming back to the UK, “we would then look to return to their own country of origin, which we would do where someone is not conducive to the public good under the 1971 Immigration Act”.

How much does the Rwanda plan cost?

The plan is also controversial due to how much it has cost so far and how much the bill could rise in the future.

On top of the £140 million previously paid out, it was revealed last week that the government spent a further £100 million in the 2023-24 financial year and has allocated another £50 million for next year.

Representing Labour in the latest parliamentary debate, Ms Cooper described the figures as an “unbelievable waste of money”.

Though when asked whether the Rwanda plan represented good value, a No10 spokesman said: “We think that in the long term this approach will reduce the cost that we’re facing in the UK of processing and housing asylum seekers.”

(Image Credit: James Veysey/Shutterstock)