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UK PM Sunak dealt a blow by Conservative rebellion over his Rwanda asylum plan

UK Premier Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference in London on Dec. 7, 2023.   -  
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James Manning/WPA Rota

United Kingdom

Two deputy chairs of the ruling British Conservative party resigned Tuesday (Jan.16) after voting in favour of hardline amendments opposed by the Prime Minister.

Rishi Sunak insisted the bill goes as far as the government can because Rwanda will pull out of it if the UK breaks international law.

The Rwanda policy seeks curb the number of migrants arriving illegaly to the UK. The law would send some asylum-seekers on a one-way trip to the east African nation to have their claims processed there.

The contested and expensive policy that the British leader has made central to his attempt to win an election this year.

To do that he needs to unite his fractious party, which trails far behind the Labour opposition in opinion polls.

But the liberal and authoritarian wings of the Conservatives are at loggerheads over the Rwanda plan.

Moderates worry the policy is too extreme, while many on the party’s powerful right wing think it doesn’t go far enough.

Those concerns were underscored by the United Nations’ refugee agency, which said Monday that the Rwanda plan “is not compatible with international refugee law.”

Britain's main opposition parties oppose the bill.

Scottish National Party lawmaker Alison Thewliss called it an “irredeemably awful” piece of legislation that “will fail to reach its objectives because it fails to engage with reality” or understand the forces that drive people to flee their homelands.

Irregular migration to the UK

In a blow to Sunak, two deputy chairmen of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith announced they would back amendments seeking to close down asylum-seekers’ avenues of appeal against deportation to Rwanda.

Former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, another rebel on the Conservative right, said only “the most robust action” would create a deterrent to prospective migrants.

“I want to stop the boats and secure our borders," Jenrick said on the first of two days of debate in the House of Commons.

He is among more than 60 Tory lawmakers, including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who want to toughen the legislation.

Some say they will vote against the bill if it is not strengthened.

Along with opposition party votes, that might be enough to kill the legislation — a major blow to Sunak’s authority and potentially fatal to the Rwanda plan.

The bill will have its crucial third reading on Wednesday (Jan. 17) in the House of Commons.

The Rwanda policy is key to Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorized migrants to the UK across the English Channel from France. 

In the year ending June 2023, there were 52,530 irregular migrants detected entering the UK , up 17% from the year ending June 2022. 85% of these arrived via small boats.

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