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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Melissa Chemam with RFI

UK signs new migration treaty with Rwanda

Britain's Home Secretary James Cleverly and Rwanda's Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta attend a joint press conference after signing a new treaty, in Kigali on 5 December 2023. AFP - BEN BIRCHALL

Britain and Rwanda signed a new treaty on Tuesday in a bid to revive a controversial proposal by London to transfer migrants to the east African country.

The agreement was signed by Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta and British Home Secretary James Cleverly, who travelled to Kigali to salvage London's stalled bid to send migrants to Rwanda after the UK Supreme Court blocked an earlier arrangement as unlawful.

"There is a lot of desire to continue to improve the process. The UK and Rwanda are working on this because it is important," Cleverly said at a joint press briefing in Kigali.

"Rwanda is very committed to this partnership and that is why we worked with the UK government to address the concerns raised by the Supreme Court", Biruta added. "We do not have plans to withdraw from this partnership.

"We are clear that Rwanda is a safe country, and we are working at pace to move forward with this partnership to stop the boats and save lives," Cleverly had said in a statement ahead of the visit."

Legal challenges

The judges from the UK's Supreme Court last month sided with a lower court decision that the policy was incompatible with Britain's international obligations, notably because Kigali could forcibly return migrants to places where they could face persecution.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to persevere with the contentious project by securing the new treaty, vowing to "address concerns" raised in the Supreme Court's ruling.

The court decision was a major setback for Sunak, who also plans to pass "emergency legislation" in parliament to designate Rwanda a safe country to end the "merry-go-round" of legal challenges.

"I'm fed up with our Rwanda policy being blocked," Sunak wrote in The Sun tabloid Tuesday.

"I've got the government working on emergency laws to end the merry-go-round so that we can fix this problem once and for all -- and stop the boats."

Focus on immigration

This UK-Rwanda migration "partnership" was agreed in April last year to envisage sending to Kigali anyone who has made what London calls "dangerous or illegal journeys" to Britain on small boats from Europe or hidden in lorries.

The first deportees were scheduled to board a first plane to fly there in June 2022, but a last-minute European Court of Human Rights injunction prevented any deportations.

The British government has since insisted the scheme is crucial to deter "illegal" immigration across the Channel from France on inflatable vessels.

Immigration lawyer at Harbottle & Lewis Sarah Gogan thinks however that Rwanda's human rights record means the UK government's policy had to be challenged.

"Rwanda is an unsafe country and this is not a quick fix," she said. "You cannot in a matter of weeks or months reform a country and turn it into one with an impartial judiciary and administrative culture."

Yvette Cooper, Labour's home affairs spokeswoman, also dismissed the government's latest plans as another "gimmick".

Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre expert Jeff Crisp analysed that "a sizeable chunk of the Conservative party see the implementation of the Rwanda deal as a means of asserting 'national sovereignty'."

Nearly 30,000 have made the perilous journey this year, compared to nearly 46,000 who crossed in 2022.

The emotive issue of immigration is set to feature prominently in the next general election, expected before the end of 2024.

(with newswires)

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