Rwanda Bill explained: What is the UK's migrant deportation bill?

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gestures outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London. Picture: Reuters / Hannah McKay

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gestures outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London. Picture: Reuters / Hannah McKay

Published Dec 12, 2023


By Michael Holden

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's new bill, which seeks to send immigrants who arrive illegally in Britain to Rwanda, faces a contentious vote in parliament on Tuesday.

A month after the British Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful, Sunak hopes the new legislation will fulfil his pledge to stop people arriving across the Channel in small boats.

Here are details about the plan and the migration issue:


Taking back control of the country's borders and ending the free movement of people was a major factor that led to the 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

According to pollster YouGov's regular tracker of public opinion, immigration currently ranks as the second most important issue facing Britain after the economy.

Successive Conservative governments had promised to cut net migration to under 100,000 annually before dropping that pledge in 2019.

In 2022 it hit a record of 745,000, partly due to new visa routes for arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong.

In response, Sunak's government unveiled a series of measures last week that could slash that number by 300,000.

Meanwhile, in 2022 a record 45,775 people were detected arriving on small boats to England's southern beaches without permission. So far this year almost 29,000 more have arrived.


The Rwanda scheme, agreed in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is designed to deter migrants from making the dangerous journey of about 20 miles (32 km) across the Channel in small boats or inflatable dinghies.

Under the plan, anyone who arrived in Britain illegally after Jan. 1 last year faced being sent to Rwanda, some 4,000 miles (6,400 km) away.

However, the first deportation flight in June 2022 was blocked by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

Last month, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld a ruling that the scheme was unlawful because Rwanda was not a safe third country and migrants were at risk of being sent back to their homelands where they would be at risk of mistreatment.

Despite no deportations taking place, Britain has already paid Rwanda 240 million pounds.


After becoming prime minister in October last year, Sunak made "stopping the boats" one of his top five priorities, but those on the right wing of his Conservative Party want him to go further.

Polls indicate the Conservatives are some 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party and one former senior minister said they faced "electoral oblivion" in an election expected next year unless he got the plan up and running.

Britain is currently spending more than 3 billion pounds a year on processing asylum applications, with the cost of housing migrants awaiting a decision in hotels and other accommodation running at about 8 million pounds a day.

According to government figures in August, the backlog of asylum applications waiting for an initial decision hit a record high of more than 134,000, or 175,457 once dependents were included. Sunak had promised to clear this.

Sending each asylum seeker to the African country would cost on average 169,000 pounds ($213,450), the government has said.


To address the issues raised by the Supreme Court, Sunak has agreed a new treaty with Rwanda and brought forward emergency legislation that seeks to override any laws that would prevent the deportation scheme going ahead.

It disapplies some sections of Britain's Human Rights Act and says ministers alone would decide on whether to comply with any injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

However, his right-wing critics, many of whom want Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, have said it still does not go far enough to prevent deportations being blocked by the courts. His immigration minister has quit.

Sunak said Rwanda would pull the plug if the bill was regarded as breaching international human rights laws. Centrist Conservatives are also anxious that the bill goes too far.


The "Safety of Rwanda Bill" faces a crunch vote on Tuesday in parliament's House of Commons where Sunak's Conservatives currently have a working majority of 56.

In theory that means if 29 MPs (Members of Parliament) rebel or 56 were to abstain, the government would be defeated, although it might still pass with support from independents or Northern Irish lawmakers.

Defeat would put Sunak's whole premiership on the line.

Even if he is able to win the necessary votes - Tuesday's is just the first - the legislation could be held up by the upper chamber, the House of Lords, preventing it from becoming law before the election.


Australia pioneered the concept of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centres. Denmark has signed a similar agreement with Rwanda, but has yet to send any migrants there.

Israel scrapped a similar deal with Rwanda in 2018 after five years, with the Israeli Supreme Court declaring it unlawful because Rwanda had not complied with assurances it had given.

Some EU countries are also tightening their border controls. Italy has recently announced plans to build reception centres in Albania to process migrants arriving by sea.

According to the House of Commons Library, which provides research for British lawmakers, there were about 13 asylum applications for every 10,000 people living in Britain in 2022, compared with 22 applications for every 10,000 people in the EU.