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U.K. Parliament members approve a plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda


British lawmakers have approved a plan to outsource the U.K.'s refugee system to Rwanda in Central Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The ayes have it. The ayes have it.


Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's government is paying Rwanda to process and resettle asylum-seekers that the U.K. doesn't want. Supporters call it a creative solution to fix a broken asylum system. Critics say it's a violation of human rights.

MARTIN: NPR's Lauren Frayer is at our bureau in London and is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So Parliament passed the law early this morning. What exactly will it do?

FRAYER: So this law will disqualify anyone from even asking for asylum in the U.K. if they enter the country illegally, no matter what type of persecution they're fleeing. Instead, they'll be deported to Rwanda, where authorities there will evaluate their cases. The U.K. government has paid the Rwandan government hundreds of millions of dollars to take these people. And this applies to Syrians, Afghans, anyone else who crosses the English Channel from France to England without a visa. There have been legal battles over this for two years. The bill was struck down by U.K. and European courts. Sunak's party rewrote it several times, and they finally got it through Parliament after midnight last night.

MARTIN: But is that going to be enough to put these legal questions to rest?

FRAYER: Doubtful. I mean, I talked to a human rights lawyer yesterday who's poised to start filing lawsuits as soon as these deportation notices go out. Sunak, though, sees this as a powerful deterrent to stop people from entering the U.K. illegally, in many cases risking their lives to do so. I mean, just this morning, there are reports that at least five migrants have died crossing the English Channel from France, including a child. And Sunak says the key to stopping smugglers who take them is to get these Rwanda flights off the ground ASAP in 10 to 12 weeks, he says. And he wants those incidentally to coincide with his party's campaign for reelection this fall. Here's what he said at a news conference yesterday.


PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: These flights will go come what may. No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off.

SUNAK: These flights will go come what may. No foreign court will stop us from getting flights off.

FRAYER: And he's referring to the European Court of Human Rights. Sunak has vowed to pull out of its jurisdiction, so pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights, if necessary. It was on the basis of that treaty that flights had been halted in the past. And two summers ago, there was actually a planeload of asylum-seekers on the runway, ready to be deported to Rwanda, when they were pulled off one by one with 11th-hour reprieves because of human rights concerns.

MARTIN: Lauren, say more about what those concerns are.

FRAYER: Well, there are questions about Rwanda's own treatment of minorities there and its ability to absorb what could be tens of thousands of deportees from the U.K.

MARTIN: How do Britons feel about this policy? You mentioned that Sunak is looking ahead to an election. Is this popular?

FRAYER: It's a gamble, Michel. I mean, anti-immigrant sentiment has actually dropped here since Brexit. I asked a pollster, Sunder Katwala, what Britons think of this Rwanda plan.

SUNDER KATWALA: On the principle, people are split down the middle really. On the question of whether it's going to happen, whether it's going to work and whether it be value for money, there's a majority that are very skeptical of this already.

FRAYER: So Sunak is forecast to lose the next election this fall. The opposition Labour Party says it will scrap this plan if and when it wins power. So, you know, with legal challenges, there could be really only a handful of people deported to Rwanda, and critics are asking, will that have been worth hundreds of millions in taxpayers' money, let alone damage to the U.K's reputation in terms of human rights?

MARTIN: That is NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Lauren, thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.