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UK's Starmer says Rwanda deportation plan 'dead and buried'

July 6, 2024

New British Prime Minister Keir Starmer is scrapping the Rwanda deportation plan by the previous Conservative government, saying its policy to keep irregular migration at bay has had the "complete opposite effect."

Newly-elected British Prime Minister Keir Starmer holds his first cabinet meeting after winning office, in London, UK, on July 6, 2024
Starmer's Labour Party has been a longtime critic of the Rwanda deportation planImage: Chris Eades/dpa/picture alliance

Newly-elected United Kingdom Prime Minister Keir Starmer on Saturday declared a controversial plan by the ousted government to deport migrants to Rwanda "dead and buried."

Starmer, the leader of the center-left Labour Party, took office on Friday after winning one of the largest parliamentary majorities in modern British history during the UK election a day earlier.

The 5-year Rwanda plan, costing 370 million pounds ($494 million, €437 million), would have flown asylum seekers to the central African country to apply for refuge, rather than in Britain.

The scheme was widely denounced by rights groups and the public and was even revised and resubmitted to parliament after the Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful.

What did Starmer say about ending the Rwanda plan?

The new prime minister told reporters at his London office that he was "not prepared to continue with gimmicks that don't act as a deterrent," referring to the Rwanda plan.

He said the policy has "had the complete opposite effect," as many thousands more migrants had arrived on Britain's shores since it was first mooted two years ago by the Conservative government that left office on Friday.

"Look at the numbers [of migrants] that have come over [the English Channel] in the first six and a bit months of this year, they are record numbers, that is the problem that we are inheriting," Starmer said.

UK Home Office (Interior Ministry) figures show some 12,300 people have made the crossing from northern France to Britain so far this year, an 18% rise from the same period last year. Several people have died making the journey.

An inflatable dinghy carrying around 65 migrants crosses the English Channel on March 06, 2024
Britain has seen an 18% increase in migrants arriving from France on small boats across the English ChannelImage: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Starmer also said the Rwanda plan would have removed only about 1% of asylum seekers.

He added that legal holdups meant the "chances were of not going and not being processed, and staying here, therefore, in paid-for accommodation for a very, very long time."

Previously, Starmer has said he would curb so-called small boat migration by hiring specialist investigators and using counterterrorism powers to "smash the criminal gangs" behind the flow of arrivals into the UK.

What was the Rwanda plan and why was it delayed?

The Rwanda policy was first announced by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022.

The 5-year deal would see London pay the government in Kigali to process claims from asylum seekers who had arrived in Britain without permission.

If their claims were successful, the migrants would be granted permission to resettle in Rwanda, not Britain.

Johnson said the plan would save countless lives and break the business model of people traffickers.

But no one was deported to Africa due to years of legal challenges and widespread criticism from opposition politicians and civic society groups.

Although the Rwanda plan did receive clearance from the High Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights later ordered that the legal action should conclude before the scheme was introduced.

In June 2023, the UK Court of Appeal ruled that the plan was unlawful, a move backed by a Supreme Court ruling in December.

The previous government of Rishi Sunak, who succeeded Johnson, then renegotiated the plan with Rwanda and passed revised legislation in April.

The legality of that move was still being challenged by charities and unions in the courts.

The new UK government now faces millions of pounds in costs from walking away from the deal.

Despite widespread criticism, other countries have similar deportation schemes, including Denmark and Israel. Some right-wing politicians in Germany have been courting public opinion on the issue.

In May, 15 European Union states wrote to Brussels to demand new ways to cut irregular migration, including the possibility of creating centers outside EU territory to send asylum seekers rescued at sea.

mm/rm (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)