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Migration and Economic Development Partnership with Rwanda

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement given in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary earlier. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the Government’s world-leading migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda.

The British people have repeatedly voted for controlled immigration and the right to secure borders. This is a Government who hear that message, and we are determined to deliver. Last night, we aimed to relocate the first people from our country who arrived here through dangerous and illegal means, including by small boats. Over the course of this week, many and various claims to prevent relocation have been brought forward. I welcomed the decisions of the Hight Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to uphold our right to send the flight. However, following a decision by an out-of-hours judge in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, minutes before our flight’s departure, the final individuals remaining on the flight had their removal directions paused.

I want to make something totally clear: the European Court of Human Rights did not rule that the policy or removals were unlawful; it simply prohibited the removal of three of those on last night’s flight. Those prohibitions last for different periods but are not an absolute bar on their transfer to Rwanda. While this decision to intervene was disappointing and surprising given repeated and considered judgments to the contrary in our domestic courts, we remain committed to this policy. These repeated legal barriers are similar to those we experience with other removal flights. We believe that we are fully compliant with our domestic and international obligations, and preparations for the next flight have already begun. Our domestic courts were of the view that the flight last night could go ahead.

The case for our partnership with Rwanda bears repeating. We are a generous and welcoming country, as has been shown time and time again. Over 200,000 people have used safe and legal routes to come to the UK since 2015. Most recently, Britons have opened their hearts and homes to Afghans and Ukrainians. But our capacity to help those most in need is compromised by those who come here illegally and jump the queue because they can afford to pay the people smugglers.

It is illegal, and it is not necessary; they are coming from other safe countries. It is not fair, either on those who play by the rules or on British taxpayers, who have to foot the bill. We cannot keep on spending nearly £5 million a day on hotels. We cannot accept this intolerable pressure on public services and local communities. It makes us less safe, because those who come here illegally do not have proper background checks and because evil people-smuggling gangs use the proceeds of their ill-gotten gains to fund other wicked crimes. It is also lethally dangerous for those who are smuggled. People have drowned at sea, suffocated in lorries and perished crossing deserts.

The humane, decent, moral response to all this is not to stand by and let people drown or be sold into slavery but to stop it. Inaction is not an option—or at least not a morally responsible one. There is a complex, long-standing problem. The global asylum system is broken. Eighty million people are displaced and others are on the move, seeking better economic opportunities. An international problem requires international solutions.

The UK and Rwanda have shown the way forward by working together. This partnership sends a clear message that illegal entry will not be tolerated, while offering a practical, humane way forward for those who arrive in the UK via illegal routes. It has saddened me to see Rwanda so terribly misrepresented and traduced in recent weeks. This is another example of how, all too often, the critics do not know what they are talking about.

Rwanda is a safe and secure country with an excellent track record of supporting asylum seekers. I am proud that we are working together, proud that the UK is investing in Rwanda and helping that great country to thrive, and proud that those who are relocated to Rwanda will have a new opportunity to thrive, too. They will be given generous support, including language skills, vocational training and help with starting a business or finding employment.

It would be wrong to issue a running commentary over ongoing cases but I will say this: this Government will not be deterred from doing the right thing. We will not be put off by inevitable last-minute challenges, nor will we allow mobs to block removals. We will not stand idly by and let organised crime gangs—who are truly despicable, evil people—treat human beings as cargo. We will not accept that we have no right to control our borders. We will do everything necessary to keep this country safe and we will continue our long, proud tradition of helping those in genuine need.

I have met refugees, both abroad and on British soil. I have listened to stories that have chilled my blood and broken my heart. Helping develop safe and legal routes to this country for those who really need them is a core part of my job. I have overseen efforts to bring to the UK thousands of people in genuine need, including from Hong Kong, Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. I am the first to say that controlled immigration is good for this country, including immigration by refugees, but we simply have to focus our support on those who most need and deserve it and not on those who have picked the UK as a preferred destination over a safe country such as France. It is no use pretending they are fleeing persecution when they are not.

Our capacity to help is not infinite, and public support for the asylum system will be fatally undermined if we do not act. The critics of the Rwanda partnership have no alternative proposal to deal with uncontrolled immigration. I promise to look carefully at any proposal to reduce illegal entry that the Benches opposite might care to suggest. Meanwhile, the Government want to get on with delivering what the British people want: an immigration system that is firm and fair. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. However, I am afraid that the Statement, and the words of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons earlier today, failed to answer any of the serious questions about this shocking policy.

The Home Secretary refused to give any transparency at all to the taxpayer or Parliament around how much taxpayers’ money is being spent. She refused to answer questions about whether those intended for yesterday’s failed flight included victims of torture or trafficking or people who have fled Afghanistan. The Home Secretary has also refused to confirm her support for the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain helped to draft and proudly ratified decades ago.

Yesterday, on the day when Ministers were insisting that a flight with fewer than seven asylum seekers would take off, come what may, over 400 people risked their lives to cross the channel. We need serious co-operation with our close neighbours in France to take action on the border, and dedicated action against criminal gangs. There is one suggestion for the Minister.

This is not, and never has been, a serious policy or a genuine attempt to get to grips with either of these very real issues. Can the Minister confirm that victims of torture were originally identified to be on yesterday’s flight, and that the Home Secretary was aware of that? What screening processes are in place before people are identified for offshoring, including age assessments to prevent children being put on a flight? Can the Minister confirm that a number of people who were due to be on the flight were removed by the Home Office itself because officials knew that there were problems with the cases?

The Home Secretary has made it clear that she considers those fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine deserving of asylum in the UK. Can the Minister confirm that it is true that yesterday’s flight was due to include people who have fled to the UK from Afghanistan? Can she give a guarantee that no person who has fled from Ukraine will be deported by this Government to Rwanda? The Government have failed to do that when asked previously. For those fleeing persecution and danger in Syria, Iran and Iraq, what safe and legal routes are available for them to access? How many people have we taken from those countries in the past year?

On cost and the use of taxpayers’ money, the Permanent Secretary refused to sign the policy off because of a lack of evidence that it is value for money. Has any evidence been found, or are officials still telling Ministers that there is no evidence at all that this will work? The Home Secretary has written a £120 million cheque for this policy before it has even started and paid out more than £500,000 for a flight that did not take off. She has refused to answer any questions or give figures for the additional payments that have been promised. How much was Rwanda promised for each of the people who were due to be on yesterday’s flight? Why will the Government not share those numbers clearly with us and the taxpayer?

Of course, we need action to tackle dangerous criminal gangs. Of course, a Government have a right to police their borders. However, Ministers know, and ought to be honest, that this policy will not achieve that. If that was a key objective of the Government’s decisions, it would not be the case that the National Crime Agency, whose job it is to target criminal gangs, has been asked to draw up 20% staff cuts. There is another idea for the Minister. In answer to MPs, the Home Secretary denied that she has asked the National Crime Agency to make any cuts. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case, and that government policy is that the NCA will not be asked to make any cuts?

Earlier, the Home Secretary herself said that, on this Government’s watch, asylum costs “are soaring”. Under the current leadership, the number of basic decisions taken by our asylum system has collapsed from 28,000 a year to just 14,000 a year. There is another example of a policy that the Minister could adopt: sorting that out. Why are the Government not dealing with the failures in our system to operate the basic necessities rather than paying a country thousands of miles away to take these decisions for us? How shameful does that make us look around the world?

Can the Minister confirm it is true that the Government are seriously looking to change the law and even leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which the court interprets? We helped to set it up in 1950. We were proud of it, as was every subsequent Prime Minister. Is that what this has come to—saying that we will get rid of the European Convention on Human Rights because we do not like it any more?

Lastly, is this really the image of our country that we want beamed across the world: deportation flights from a guarded RAF base because the policy is so unpopular? There is a better way, with a policy based on humanity and the values that this country holds dear. That is what we should be doing.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

The Home Secretary began her Statement by saying:

“The British people have repeatedly voted for controlled immigration”.

This Government have dramatically increased immigration into this country, allowing visa-free entry from even more countries while retaining visa-free entry for those from the European Union. The National Audit Office estimates that between 600,000 and 1.2 million illegal immigrants are in the UK. In 2010, there were more than 10,000 removals of those illegally in the UK; in 2021, it was 113. Why are the Government increasing immigration and reducing removals?

The Home Secretary talked about “intolerable pressure” being placed on public services. In 2019, the Government allowed 680,000 economic migrants and foreign students into the country, while the number claiming asylum in the same year was 41,700. Only 6% of all long-term international migrants in 2019 were asylum seekers. How much pressure are asylum seekers placing on the system compared with other migrants?

The Home Secretary said that she welcomed the decision of domestic courts and blamed the European Court of Human Rights for grounding the flight to Rwanda. Reportedly, 130 asylum seekers were issued with notice of removal to Rwanda and the European Court of Human Rights removed three asylum seekers from the plane. Yet the Home Secretary seeks to blame a European judge in Strasbourg. How many asylum seekers won their cases in domestic courts?

The Home Secretary talked about it costing £5 million a day to house asylum seekers. The Rwandan authorities say that it will cost about the same to house a refugee in Rwanda as it does in the UK. Why are the costs so high? It is because since Priti Patel became Home Secretary, the number awaiting a decision on their asylum application, unable to work and reliant on the state has trebled. What will the cost be for those removed to Rwanda compared with those who stay in the UK?

The Home Secretary said that Rwanda was being terribly misrepresented, that it was in fact a safe and secure country with an outstanding record when it comes to supporting asylum seekers, and that those removed to Rwanda will be given generous support, language training, and help to find jobs and to set up their own businesses. Leaving aside a dozen asylum seekers reportedly having been shot when they protested about conditions in Rwanda, if Rwanda is such a desirable location, how is threatening to remove asylum seekers, and only some asylum seekers, to Rwanda, supposed to deter those crossing the channel?

Some 75% of the people affected by this Government’s policy of deporting asylum seekers, based on those crossing the channel whose claims are processed in the UK, are genuine seekers of sanctuary who have the right to settle in the UK under the UN refugee convention. They are vulnerable and traumatised. They are likely to include victims of modern slavery and victims of torture, who are unlikely to reveal the extent of their trauma on arrival in the UK. They are likely to be further traumatised by being removed to Rwanda. A Rwandan government spokesperson said today on Sky News that Rwanda does not have the facilities to care for these kinds of vulnerable asylum seekers. What will happen to these particularly vulnerable asylum seekers? Will they be returned to the UK and, if so, at what cost, both emotionally to the victims, and to the taxpayer?

The UK must take its fair share of asylum seekers and not export our legal and moral responsibilities to Rwanda. In 2020, the UK had six applications for asylum per 10,000 population, while EU countries on average had 11. In 2002, over 84,000 people claimed asylum in the UK and in 2019 it was less than 36,000. The asylum system is broken because this Government broke it. This immoral, impractical and expensive policy is not the answer.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their comments. They will understand, as I said yesterday, that there are certain things which I cannot say because of ongoing legal challenges, one of which is around costs. However, you cannot put a cost on saving someone’s life.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked me about the convention on human rights. Earlier today, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary confirmed that the Deputy Prime Minister was looking into a Bill of Rights for this country. The noble Lord talked also about action on criminal gangs. I found this interesting because of some of the resistance I encountered during the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill to tackling some of those problems. I repeat that when it comes to funding for the NCA, the NCA will have the funds that it needs to tackle some of them, and that upstream work is not an either/or, as might have been debated in the other place, but an “as well as”. We must do both. We must tackle those criminal gangs upstream and do what we can, but we must also deter the illegal crossings.

The noble Lord also asked me about victims of torture and people being taken off flights. If anyone claims they are a victim of torture, they are taken off their flight so that their claim can be assessed.

The noble Lord also asked about Afghans, Ukrainians and Syrians. Since 2015, we have resettled over 20,000 Syrians through the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme and the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme. We have also been incredibly generous to our Ukrainian friends and through the schemes for Afghans. Afghans really do not need to attempt to cross the channel; they need to apply through the safe and legal routes that we have set up for the Afghan people.

The noble Lord asked about the Permanent Secretary, whose letter to the Home Secretary made it clear that he considers

“that it is regular, proper and feasible”

for the Home Secretary

“to make a judgement to proceed”

with this policy

“in the light of the illegal migration challenge the country is facing.”

It is the responsibility of the Permanent Secretary

“as Principal Accounting Officer to ensure that the Department’s use of its resources is appropriate and consistent with the requirements set out in Managing Public Money”.

The reasons for writing are set out clearly in the published letter.

The noble Lord, Lord Paddick, talked about there being far fewer asylum seekers than migrants. That is absolutely true. We are talking here about controlled migration and people not taking illegal and very risky journeys, across some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Again, vulnerable asylum seekers are part of an ongoing legal challenge, so I cannot answer the noble Lord on that for the time being.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising barrister. Yesterday, in rejecting an application to stop the flight to Rwanda, the President of the Supreme Court, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Reed, said:

“In bringing that application, the appellant’s lawyers were performing their proper function of ensuring that their clients are not subjected to unlawful treatment at the hands of the Government.”

Do the Government agree with that? Will the Minister deprecate the criticisms of barristers and solicitors who have acted for asylum claimants in these proceedings, wherever they have come from?

The noble Lord knows I am on quite delicate territory, because legal proceedings are ongoing. I repeat the earlier words of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who described our legal system as

“the best in the world.”

My Lords, in response to the Home Office Oral Statement, we on these Benches ask if it is not immoral that those who are to be deported to Rwanda have had no chance to appeal or to reunite with family in Britain. Is it not immoral that they have had no consideration of their asylum claims, recognition of their medical or other needs, or attempts to understand their predicament, given that many are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors? Would the Minister welcome the very good work done in parishes up and down the country in support of refugees and asylum seekers—endeavours that are strongly endorsed by these Benches? In the light of the Home Secretary’s challenge to articulate more clearly alternatives to government policy, I ask the Minister what consideration Her Majesty’s Government have given to humanitarian corridors, as practised in France and Italy, and in which churches have played a prominent part.

My Lords, we had a good discussion on morality yesterday. As I said then, and shall say now, I think it is not moral to not do everything you can to prevent people drowning at sea or being delivered into the hands of criminals; I do not find that moral at all. On alternative humanitarian corridors, we have provided resettlement schemes for our Afghan, Ukrainian, Syrian and Hong Kong friends who are fleeing regimes which put them in danger. They are the sorts of things that we are doing. There are safe and legal routes. It is perfectly legitimate to say that we should widen the safe and legal route so that literally anyone can come here, but we have to tailor our hospitality and our refuge to the people who need it most, and that is what we are doing. However, I will not let this go by without thanking the Church for the work it does in supporting those in need.

I shall repeat to my noble friend the question that I put to her yesterday to which she did not respond. She responded instead to a question I did not ask, so now I repeat my question: given that the judiciary is going to come to a determined view on the legality of this policy of migration to Rwanda in the near future, is it not right, in accordance with natural justice and fairness, to defer any further flights until the judiciary has come to a considered view on the legality of the Government’s policy?

My Lords, the judiciary has come to a considered view not once, not twice, but three times, and none considered the policy unlawful. My noble friend is correct in what he says about the ECHR and its ruling at 10 pm last night. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will reflect on that judgment.

My Lords, this disgraceful Statement is made more disgusting by the crocodile tears which are shed by the person who is making the Statement and the pseudo call on a kind of democratic decision. Does the Minister not recall that this is reminiscent of another decision made by the British Government? I speak as a British subject, loyal to the Crown, and as a British Jew. I remember very clearly that boats that went to Palestine in the 1940s were turned back under the most cruel circumstances, with the inevitable death of those migrants who were seen to be illegal by the Government. This is a disgraceful example of continuing policy, and it seems to me that the Front Bench should not be sitting there but should be hanging their heads in shame.

My Lords, I object to pretty much everything that the noble Lord has just said. Using what happened to the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s as a reason to undermine and criticise the Government for everything really diminishes what the Jews went through, so I hope that this House does not deploy that any further. There are no pseudo crocodile tears from me or my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. It is a very desperate situation, and it is a global problem that requires a global response.

Can my noble friend tell the House whether there is any truth in the extraordinary story that is currently running in the newspapers that the Democratic Administration of President Biden are negotiating with Spain to take Spanish-speaking illegal migrants from central America away from the United States.? Is that true?

My Lords, first, does the Minister agree that the courts yesterday, domestically and in Strasbourg, were dealing with the narrow question of whether people should be sent off pending the substantive consideration and judicial review in July? Secondly, does she agree that, while I was disappointed by courts in London and her side was disappointed by courts in Strasbourg, what we in your Lordships’ House do not do is have a go at the referees—the judges—because we happen to be disappointed on a given day? Thirdly, does the Minister, for whom I have enormous respect, agree that the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted in principle by Conservative lawyers as part of Churchill’s legacy and that in these difficult times, domestically and in Europe, we should keep faith with the Council of Europe and keep our commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights?

I would say all yes on all three counts—but on that last point, as I said earlier, I know the Deputy Prime Minister is looking at a Bill of rights, and there is nothing wrong with revisiting things from time to time.

My Lords, last week we were given a clear assurance that refugees from Ukraine would not be sent to Rwanda. Does this two-tier system of human rights fit with any sort of concept of equal rights for every human being? While I deeply sympathise with the plight of the Ukrainians, other people are also suffering and all people should have equal human rights.

Secondly, does the Minister agree with the sentiments expressed by all the Bishops of this House in yesterday’s Times that this policy of sending suffering people—people fleeing for their lives—to Rwanda goes against all the concepts of Christian teachings and, if I may add, the teachings of other faiths too?

Lastly, does she agree that the whole concept of tearing up treaties, such as the Northern Ireland protocol and now the European Convention on Human Rights, makes us look ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world?

The question of tearing up treaties probably goes slightly beyond the purview of today’s Statement. As for going against all Christian and other faith teaching, as I said on the question of morality, watching people die because they are paying traffickers and drown in the channel is the most tragic point of all of this. We should do everything that we can to stop it.

My Lords, Rwanda has been mentioned on a number of occasions and we now know the cost involved in detaining people there. Which other countries have been approached for similar arrangements and what has been the refusal rate?

The noble Lord will understand that I cannot talk about other countries, but I know that other countries are interested in the scheme we have agreed with Rwanda.

My Lords, two points are absolutely clear here when one talks about the rule of law. I declare an interest as a practising barrister. First, I would not like to be identified with several of my clients, with the greatest of respect to them. A lawyer should not be identified personally with the cause for which they are arguing, nor should a lawyer be identified, with the greatest of respect, with the people smugglers engaged in this enterprise.

Secondly, does the Minister agree that the European Court of Human Rights would do itself more favours if, instead of passing orders with no named judge attached to them, just as justice is done in this country by judges whom we can identify, orders of the European court were also in the name of an identified judge?

I used to be so grateful to have my noble friend beside me. I am now very grateful for his wisdom behind me, and he is absolutely right.

My Lords, the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium has expressed grave concern that, because of the Government’s flawed approach to age disputes, it is already seeing children who have been detained as adults and issued with a notice of intent to remove them, despite Home Office assurances to the contrary. What steps are being taken to ensure that no unaccompanied asylum-seeking child is wrongly removed as an adult?

My Lords, my honourable friend Tom Pursglove made clear in the other place that no unaccompanied asylum-seeking child will be sent to Rwanda, and I am sure I repeated it in this House.

My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi—he is, after all, the guardian of the migration convention—that the action by the Government was not in conformity with international law? If that is the case, what right do the Government have to elevate their view of international law above that of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose job is to guard that convention?

My Lords, we had much discussion about the UNHCR’s view of the Nationality and Borders Act. We disagreed. He is perfectly within his rights to say what he did, but we respectfully disagree.

My Lords, saying in answer to my noble friend that we are committed to a Bill of rights for this country does not answer the question about the European convention. Britain initiated the European Convention on Human Rights and Winston Churchill was one of its architects. The great advantage of it is that it holds other countries to an international standard. If we are going to ask countries such as Turkey, Hungary and Azerbaijan to adhere to standards, we have to do so as well. To suggest—even to hint—that we will withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights is an absolute disgrace. If it happens, this country will not be able to show its face in any international fora again.

My Lords, I did not state that we were going to withdraw; I said that the Deputy Prime Minister was looking at a Bill of rights. All through the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act, we were absolutely clear that that Act complied with the ECHR.

My Lords, there seems to be a lack of transparency about the whole scheme. I ask the Minister, who knows I have enormous respect for her: what criteria were used to select those asylum seekers to be deported to Rwanda? It has been reported that it is quite random and not based on their circumstances, such as their having been trafficked. The Government and the Minister have emphasised that they want to stop trafficking, so what sense does it make to deport someone who has suffered trafficking and is a victim?

My second question is about how we learned that Britain has agreed to take refugees from Rwanda under the scheme Priti Patel signed up to. What details can the Minister give us about this? How many will be coming here? It seems to be a reciprocal scheme. If Rwanda is such a safe and secure country, why are we taking refugees from Rwanda?

To answer the noble Baroness’s second question first, taking people from Rwanda is to do with problems in the region. It is not deportation, by the way. An awful lot of noble Lords and Members of the other place are calling this deportation but it is not. Deportation is for criminals.

On the criteria, with the exception of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, any individual who has arrived in the UK through dangerous, illegal and unnecessary routes since 1 January this year may be considered for relocation for Rwanda. Those decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis.

My noble friend knows my unhappiness with this provision. Indeed, I moved amendments in Committee on the nationality Bill to try to remove offshoring. As a former Immigration Minister, I revealed then that I looked at the possibility of offshoring asylum applications some years ago. After considerable research, I came to the conclusion that it was not a good thing for this country to do.

I am a lawyer, though not in the same league as some of the other speakers today, and my understanding is that someone who claims asylum in a particular country is entitled to the matter being considered by the country in which they claim asylum. In offshoring the whole application, which is not made to the Rwandans but ends up in their hands, how are we complying with the 1951 convention and general international law?

Finally—I am sure that my noble friend will be aware of this—I am most surprised that, once an application has been considered in Rwanda and accepted there, this does not entitle an applicant who initially made that application in the UK to come back to this country. They have to remain in Rwanda, where they have not made any form of application whatever.

My noble friend refers to the long-standing inadmissibility rule, which states that the asylum seeker should claim asylum in the first safe country.

My Lords, without getting embroiled in the politics of this, I would be grateful if the Minister could say why Rwanda was chosen and, generally, on what terms. If I heard her correctly, three were in question and were part of the legal process last night, so why did the flight not continue in any event?

Have the Rwandans given an assurance that they will not further deport refugees to another country? The Minister spoke about Rwanda being misrepresented and that it supports asylum seekers. Would she care to comment on the fact that Rwanda is looking for the extradition from this country of people associated with the genocide in that country? It has been doing so for a very long time, but the UK is not in any way accommodating that request.

I will not comment on legal matters. The three that I mentioned were the court applications, not people. Rwanda is a nation of refugees that has known terrible horror, including genocide; it is very sensitive to the plight of refugees. In fact, most of the people whom I spoke to when I was there were themselves refugees from other parts of Africa. At this stage, it is right to let the legal processes take their course. As my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in another place, she will consider the judgment of last night.