Foreign Office tried to scupper Rwanda deportations, leaked papers show

Rishi Sunak will seek to secure approval for his Safety of Rwanda Bill by forcing the Lords and Commons to sit until they agree to the plans
Rishi Sunak will seek to secure approval for his Safety of Rwanda Bill by forcing the Lords and Commons to sit until they agree to the plans - Paul Grover/Telegraph

The Foreign Office tried to scupper the Rwanda deportation scheme over concerns it could breach human rights laws, leaked government documents show.

A government memo, seen by The Telegraph, shows that the Foreign Office sought to have Rwanda removed from a list of countries identified for “offshore” processing of asylum seekers deported from the UK, warning also it could anger Commonwealth partners.

Civil servants warned that any scheme could result in “potentially significant” challenges under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and raised questions over the legality of the plans.

They also raised concerns that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda could anger Commonwealth partners.

The revelation comes ahead of crunch parliamentary votes on Monday when Rishi Sunak will seek to secure approval for his Safety of Rwanda Bill by forcing the Lords and Commons to sit until they agree to the plans.

The leaked documents are likely to be seized upon by critics of the legislation on both sides of the argument. The Lords are seeking to introduce extra checks to protect asylum seekers by ensuring Rwanda is safe and unlikely to treat them in a way that could breach their human rights.

Sunak ‘failed to heed warnings’

Right-wing MPs said the memo showed the Government had failed to heed warnings to eliminate legal risks under the ECHR that could have prevented the two-year delay in the flights.

A senior Tory source said: “These are bombshell revelations. The Government knew all along that ECHR rights would thwart the Rwanda scheme and yet ploughed on regardless. They’ve conned the public it would be fine.

“The Prime Minister was then chancellor – he’s known this the whole time and he was warned repeatedly when he became PM that his measures didn’t go far enough.”

The document, drawn up ahead of the announcement of the Rwanda scheme in 2022, reveals the Government was considering nine countries for partnership deals to take migrants deported from the UK with their asylum claims processed offshore.

Officials at the Foreign Office, then headed by Dominic Raab, had been asked to submit the department’s views on the suitability of each country to receive migrants to have their asylum claims processed.

The Foreign Office advocated “removing” Rwanda from consideration for the scheme altogether. “FS [Foreign Secretary’s] private office have provided us with a clear steer not to proceed given our Commonwealth equities in the run-up to Chogm [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting],” said the document.

“We would also highlight the human rights concerns outlined in the country report, which would potentially pose significant [European Convention on Human Rights] article 3 challenges.”

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful on the basis that the country was unsafe for asylum seekers. This was because of the risk they could be returned to their home countries where they might face persecution or torture in breach of their rights under article 3 of the ECHR.

The Safety of Rwanda Bill blocks systemic legal challenges but still gives individual migrants a right to seek to appeal. Right-wing MPs unsuccessfully tried before Christmas to tighten the restrictions on challenges even further.

Other countries considered for “partnership” deals to take deported migrants included Angola, Georgia, Kenya, Morocco and Tunisia but the Foreign Office advised against all five because of their poor track record in dealing with refugees, which would pose “significant” legal challenges.

Foreign Office officials said there would be “political” issues over Albania and North Macedonia because their governments would fear a public backlash if they were seen to be processing migrants from other countries. There were also concerns about migrants being able to leave the countries because of weaker border security.

The Foreign Office also “strongly” advised against approaching Georgia and Moldova for a partnership arrangement “given the potential for Russian interference”.

MPs are expected to reject the Lords’ two amendments to Mr Sunak’s Rwanda Bill before sending it back to the upper house, where peers will decide whether to spark a fifth round of parliamentary ping-pong by reinstating the changes.

Downing Street has indicated there will be no concessions, while Labour is preparing to whip its peers to continue to back the amendments if there is no government compromise.

The source of the standoff has been boiled down to two amendments, one demanding an exemption from deportation for Afghans who worked with the UK military and a second seeking tighter checks on whether Rwanda remains safe for asylum seekers.

Mr Sunak has consistently said that he wants the deportation flights to Rwanda to take off this spring but the first 150 migrants earmarked for the initial flights cannot be notified until the Bill gains royal assent. There is then a legal appeal process required by law for the migrants that is scheduled to take four to eight weeks.

A government spokesman said: “The British people have made clear they want us to stop the boats. The Rwanda plan is a bold and innovative solution to deter illegal migrants coming to the UK.

“The longer this Bill is delayed, the more vulnerable migrants will be lured into unseaworthy boats and risk their lives.”