Sunak told Lords not to delay the Rwanda bill further
Sunak told Lords not to delay the Rwanda bill further AFP

The UK readied on Tuesday to start detention of migrants within days before deporting them to Rwanda, after the controversial plan cleared its final hurdle, sparking criticism from the UN and rights groups.

The new law -- a flagship policy of the Conservative government that wants to curb irregular migration -- finally got the green light after a marathon parliamentary tussle lasting late into Monday night.

Under the scheme, undocumented asylum seekers arriving in Britain would be sent to Rwanda, where their asylum claims would be examined and, if approved, would allow them to stay in Rwanda.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says deportations are expected to begin within 10-12 weeks, with migrants identified for the first flight due to be detained and held from as early as this week.

"Starting from the moment that the bill passes... we will begin the process of removing those identified for the first flight," he told reporters earlier on Monday.

"We have prepared for this moment to detain people while we prepare to remove them. We've increased detention spaces to 2,200."

Rwanda said it was "pleased" to see the bill passed and was looking forward to "welcoming those relocated to Rwanda".

But the heads of the UN agencies for refugees and human rights warned it threatened the rule of law and set "a perilous precedent globally".

They urged the UK to instead "take practical measures to address irregular flows of refugees and migrants, based on international cooperation and respect for international human rights law".

The Council of Europe also called for the new law to be scrapped, with human rights commissioner Michael O'Flaherty saying it raised "major issues about the human rights of asylum seekers and the rule of law more generally".

Sunak said the "landmark legislation" would deter record numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from northern France, and disrupt people-smuggling gangs behind them.

"The passing of this legislation will allow us to do that and make it very clear that if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay," he added.

"Our focus is to now get flights off the ground, and I am clear that nothing will stand in our way of doing that and saving lives."

The legislation, which will compel judges to regard the east African nation as a safe third country, now goes to head of state King Charles III for royal assent. He has reportedly criticised the plan as "appalling".

It also gives decision-makers on asylum applications the power to disregard sections of international and domestic human rights law to get around a UK Supreme Court ruling that said sending migrants on a one-way ticket to Kigali was illegal.

But the government faced a parliamentary battle to do so, with the upper chamber House of Lords, which scrutinises bills, repeatedly sending the proposed legislation back to the lower House of Commons with amendments.

Peers, who had criticised the bill as inadequate, notably wanted a requirement that Rwanda could not be treated as safe until an independent monitoring body said so.

MPs in the elected Commons, where the Tories have a majority, voted down every amendment and asked the Lords to think again in a back-and-forth process known as "parliamentary ping pong".

The unelected upper chamber, where there is no overall majority for any party, dug in their heels but eventually agreed to make no further amendments, allowing the bill to pass.

Sunak's government, facing what opinion polls say will be a defeat at a general election later this year, has been under mounting pressure to cut record numbers of people crossing the Channel in small boats, particularly after a promise of a tougher approach to immigration after the UK left the European Union.

The Rwanda scheme was first proposed in 2022, but has been beset by legal challenges ever since and two years on, no migrants have been deported.

The National Audit Office, a public spending watchdog, has estimated it will cost the UK GBP540 million ($665 million) to deport the first 300 migrants -- nearly GBP2 million per person.

Charities have said the scheme is unworkable and, given the small numbers involved, would do little to cut the backlog of asylum claims.

Rwanda -- a tiny nation of 13 million people -- lays claim to being one of the most stable countries in Africa. But rights groups accuse veteran President Paul Kagame of ruling in a climate of fear, stifling dissent and free speech.

Sunak's plans could still be held up by legal challenges, and UN rights experts have suggested that airlines and aviation regulators could fall foul of internationally protected human rights laws if they take part in deportations.

The law is designed to stop record numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from northern France
The law is designed to stop record numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from northern France AFP