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UK: Civil servants appeal Rwanda law as 66 migrants rescued

May 2, 2024

The UK's senior civil servants union has mounted a legal appeal against the government's controversial Rwanda deportation legislation. Meanwhile, 66 migrants were rescued while trying to cross the English Channel.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, by the UK Border Force in April 2024.
UK Border Force regularly pick up migrants trying to cross the English Channel, like in this incident in AprillImage: Gareth Fuller/PA/AP/picture alliance

Senior British civil servants on Wednesday launched a legal appeal against the government's controversial Rwanda deportation legislation.

The First Division Association (FDA), the trade union which represents the United Kingdom's senior civil servants, said the new legislation could effectively force its members to break both international law and the Civil Service Code, the legally-underpinned rule book which governs the bureaucrats' responsibilities.

"Civil servants should never be left in a position where they are conflicted between the instructions of ministers and adhering to the Civil Service Code, yet that is exactly what the government has chosen to do", said the FDA's general secretary, Dave Penman.

What are UK civil servants concerned about?

The UK government last week passed legislation to overrule a decision by the country's Supreme Court which found that Rwanda was not a safe place to send geuine refugees, and enable ministers to ignore a temporary order from the European Court of Human Rights to halt flights amid an ongoing case.

In practice, argues the FDA, this could see senior civil servants being ordered by ministers to prepare flights even before judges have reached a decision, constituting a breach of international law which in turn would breach the Civil Service Code.

"Civil servants know that they have to support the government of the day and implement policy, regardless of their political beliefs, but they also know they have a legal obligation to adhere to the Civil Service Code," said Penman.

"Faced with a government that is prepared to act in this cowardly, reckless way, it is left to the FDA to defend our members and the integrity of the civil service."

What has the British government said?

The government's head of propriety and ethics, Darren Tierney, argued that the code would not be breached, writing in a letter published on the government's website: 

"[Civil servants] would be operating in compliance with the law, which is the law enacted by Parliament under which the minister's specifically recognized and confirmed discretion would be exercized."

The FDA challenge came on the same day that the government confirmed that it had begun detaining people for deportation to Rwanda in July under its new policy, and a day after it had sent a first asylum-seeker to Rwanda under a separate voluntary scheme.

"The first illegal migrants set to be removed to Rwanda have now been detained," a statement from the interior ministry, the Home Office, read.

Hailing "another major milestone" in the Rwanda plan, the ministry released photographs and video footage of immigration enforcement officers detaining several migrants at different residences. They were seen being led away in handcuffs and put into secure vehicles.

"[This is] an important part of operationalizing the plan to get flights off the ground in nine to 11 weeks' time and provide the effective deterrent that we need to stop these dangerous boat crossings," said a spokesman for UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

That timeframe also represents the government seeking to launch the policy in the run-up to a general election, which is likely in the second half of 2024, with the ruling Conservatives currently well adrift in the polls.

French police rescue 66 migrants in English Channel

One of the latest migrant crossing attempts needed assistance from French police on Wednesday night, who said they had rescued 66 migrants who were trying to cross the English Channel in a small boat.

The boat laden with people, including women and children, was spotted in trouble off the coast of the northern French town of Dieppe, police said.

The people were brought to shore, where their papers were checked.

In March, UK government figures showed that more migrants had arrived in the country since the start of 2024 by crossing the Channel from northern France in small boats than in any similar period before, with some 4,644 undocumented people making the dangerous journey.

mf/msh (AFP, Reuters, AP)