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Activists and supporters of Together with Refugees stage a protest in Parliament Square in London, January 25, 2023. © 2023 NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Yesterday, a United Kingdom bill that requires decision-makers to treat Rwanda as a “safe country” to send asylum seekers to—and which disregards a ruling by the UK’s highest court—passed its second reading in the House of Lords, parliament’s upper legislative chamber. The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill poses a grave threat to the rule of law and human rights, setting a dangerous legal and constitutional precedent that seeks to elevate the government above the rule of law.

In December, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda cannot be considered safe. The ruling was based on comprehensive evidence, including findings by Human Rights Watch on Rwanda’s well-established track record of repression, abuse, and disregard for its international obligations. By legislating to ignore the ruling, this bill effectively tries to place the government above the law.

The government has tried to alleviate concerns about Rwanda’s dire human rights record, insisting that the scheme would be subject to rigorous oversight and monitoring mechanisms under the new treaty between the UK and Rwanda. But by legislating that Rwanda is safe and attempting to prevent courts from reconsidering Rwanda’s safety when hearing a case, any oversight will be wholly ineffective. Even if evidence is uncovered of widespread violations against asylum seekers, the proposed law would instruct decision-makers to ignore these facts and rubber stamp removals to Rwanda, except in the very limited case where they concern an asylum seekers’ personal situation.

The UK government is trying to shield itself from judicial scrutiny and accountability for its decisions that affect peoples’ rights, which sends a grave message that the government no longer respects basic principles of the rule of law.

The UK’s willingness to breach its international obligations has drawn attention. A number of foreign officials have privately expressed alarm to Human Rights Watch that the UK-Rwanda scheme undermines international refugee protections and the rules-based order. Other officials have accused the UK of hypocrisy, questioning why they should listen to the UK’s calls for them to uphold their obligations towards asylum seekers and refugees given its own poor record.

In the face of this dangerous bill, the House of Lords has a pivotal role to play in protecting the rule of law. The Lords should resist the bill being passed into law and send a clear message to the government that this cruel, costly, and unlawful scheme should be abandoned. 

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