Britain says the scheme is in response to increasing numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from France in small boats
Britain says the scheme is in response to increasing numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from France in small boats AFP News

As Britain pushes forward with controversial plans to send migrants to Rwanda, a UK government minister voiced "amazement" Wednesday at the criticism it has drawn from the United Nations.

International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell's comments to AFP came after a day after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak won a knife-edge parliamentary vote on his latest version of the scheme.

"I wish to express most extraordinary amazement that the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, strongly opposes Britain's plan for sending people to Rwanda, on the grounds that Rwanda is not a safe country," Mitchell told AFP.

The UNHCR has from the start been harshly critical of the UK-Rwanda deportation plan, first announced by Sunak's predecessor Boris Johnson last year.

The government presented it as a way of dealing with increasing numbers of migrants crossing the Channel from France in small boats.

But the UNHCR has voiced "deep concern about the 'externalisation' of asylum obligations and the serious risks it poses for refugees".

The scheme has been stuck in the courts since the first deportees were pulled off a flight out of the UK at the last minute in June 2022 after an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

Then in November, Britain's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was illegal under international law, since Rwanda was not a safe country.

The government came back with its new Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill last week, seeking to declare Rwanda safe and circumvent that ruling.

The emergency legislation, which passed its first hurdle Tuesday, would compel judges to treat Rwanda as safe. It would give UK ministers powers to disregard sections of human rights law.

Mitchell insisted that the Rwanda plan was needed to "break" the business model of people smugglers bringing migrants across the English Channel.

Almost 30,000 irregular migrants have crossed the Channel from northern France in rudimentary vessels this year.

"Vulnerable people -- and many of them have died -- are smuggled by the modern-day equivalent of a slave trader across what is the biggest, busiest shipping lane in the world, to enter Britain illegally," Mitchell said.

"No government can allow that sort of thing to happen," said the minister, speaking to AFP by phone on the sidelines of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva.

He was "amazed, astonished, genuinely stumped", that the UNHCR would criticise the plan, he added.

The UN refugee agency itself has relocated vulnerable migrants from war-torn Libya to Rwanda, he argued.

"I can't understand it, that the UNHCR would complain that Britain would send people to an unsafe country, when that is clearly not what they think, or they wouldn't be sending all these people to Rwanda. It defies explanation."

UNHCR does have a programme called the Emergency Transit Mechanism (ETM), aimed at evacuating some of the most vulnerable refugees in Libya to Rwanda.

But a UNHCR spokesperson stressed to AFP that "this programme is emergency, temporary and voluntary in nature and serves a very specific, limited purpose.

"It is a facility for receiving refugees, on an emergency basis, whose human rights, and in some cases lives, are at immediate risk in Libya," the spokesperson said.

Asked about London's support for the UNHCR, Mitchell said Britain would always fund the "UNHCR for the vital work they do, where we think they're getting value for money -- and where we think they're acting in support of values and interests which Britain supports".