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With no flights before election, UK’s Rwanda migrant scheme may never get off ground

THE controversial plan to fly thousands of asylum seekers from Britain to Rwanda may never get off the ground after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that there would be no deportations before a national election in July.

After taking office in October 2022, Sunak made the plan to send migrants who arrived in Britain without permission to the East African nation one of his flagship policies, saying it would put an end to thousands of asylum seekers coming on small boats across the Channel.

In April, Sunak promised the first flights would take off in the next 10 to 12 weeks after parliament finally passed a law designed to get around legal obstacles that had held up the plan for more than two years.

But, after announcing on Wednesday that Britain would go to the polls on July 4, he said there would be no departures before the vote. Instead, his message was that only by re-electing him would the Rwanda scheme – popular with some voters whose support the Conservatives need in order to win – get up and running.

“We’ve started detaining people … the flights are booked for July, airfields on standby, the escorts are ready, the caseworkers are churning through everything, so all that is happening, and if I’m re-elected as your prime minister, those flights will go to Rwanda,” he told a campaign event.

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The opposition Labour Party, currently about 20 points ahead in opinion polls and seen as likely to defeat Sunak’s Conservatives, has promised to scrap the scheme if it wins.

It described it as a “con” and said that Sunak had called the early election before it was found out

Further legal challenges from a trade union and a charity could also have potentially derailed Sunak’s timetable.

It means that the controversial plan – which has already cost hundreds of millions of pounds to set up even though no one has yet been sent to Rwanda – may never come to fruition.

“It certainly looks like the end,” said Sonya Sceats, Chief Executive at Freedom from Torture, one of the many organisations and charities which have campaigned to stop the scheme.

ELECTION ISSUE

Immigration will be one of the main battlegrounds at the election, and Sunak has sought to cast the Rwanda policy as the way of dealing with an expensive issue that the public wants tackled while accusing Labour of having no answers.

Britain is currently spending more than 3 billion pounds a year on processing asylum applications. Figures on Thursday showed annual net migration had fallen, but was still much higher than before the 2016 Brexit referendum when “taking back control” of Britain’s borders was a key factor.

While critics have argued the Rwanda policy was immoral and would never work, supporters say it would smash the model of people traffickers.

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Last November, the UK Supreme Court declared the policy unlawful saying Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country, prompting Sunak to sign a new treaty with the East African country and to pass new legislation to override this.

In the meantime, the number of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey across the Channel has risen to record numbers this year, with almost 10,000 people arriving so far after numbers fell by a third in 2023.

The right-wing Reform Party, which has sucked support from the Conservatives, said the Rwanda scheme was fundamentally flawed and no flights would leave, while Britain’s borders remained open.

Even some within Sunak’s party said the public would draw similar conclusions.

“Where are the flights to Rwanda? You can only draw the conclusion that they will never leave,” one Conservative lawmaker told Reuters.

Whoever wins in July, the small boats problem will remain one of their biggest challenges.

“The simple truth is that the next government will be facing an asylum system in meltdown, as the backlog of cases without a decision keeps getting bigger and bigger,” said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council.

“The Rwanda plan will go down in the history of British policymaking as an Alice in Wonderland adventure that was both absurd and inhumane.”

By MICHAEL HOLDEN and ANDREW MACASKILL

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