The government “doesn’t relish” deporting migrants to Rwanda but is being “forced” to pursue the controversial policy because of the rise in Channel crossings, a cabinet minister has claimed.
Oliver Dowden was asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday if he is “comfortable” with the idea of sending children and families to the east African nation if they arrive in the UK illegally.
He said: “I don’t relish any of this and I really wish we didn’t have to do it… we are being forced to do it.”
Listing the reasons why the government is being “forced” into the policy, Mr Dowden said: “With those children seeking to cross the Channel, I think of the danger that their lives are being put in, the evil people smugglers in whose hands they’re placed.
“And unless we are willing as a government and as a country to take tough action in relation to this, the numbers will keep on growing and more people’s lives will be put at risk, the lives of young children. And I’m simply not willing to allow that to happen.”
Labour’s Lisa Nandy asked what the government has been “forced to do” as she pointed out the £140m deportation scheme is yet to get off the ground since it was launched last April.
She said “everybody accepts” that the small boat crossings amount to a “crisis… but the question is what is the government actually doing so far?”
Ms Nandy said: “They’ve done several PR opportunities and photo ops. We’ve had £140m of cheques written to Rwanda in order to implement a scheme that hasn’t removed a single person. This is just more stunts from this government.”
The shadow housing secretary said the government should use the money that is being spent on the “unethical unworkable scheme” and put it into the National Crime Agency “to create a cross-border cell in order to disrupt the criminal gangs who are profiting from people’s misery”.
She insisted this was not a “magic wand solution”, saying “what it’s doing is the hard yards that this government hasn’t been prepared to do”.
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The Rwanda scheme has been stalled by legal challenges since it was launched almost a year ago by Priti Patel, the home secretary at the time, but a government source has told Sky News UK officials are working towards getting the flights started “by the summer”.
Suella Braverman, the home secretary, signed an update to the migrants agreement during a visit to the African country this weekend, expanding its scope to “all categories of people who pass through safe countries and make illegal and dangerous journeys to the UK”.
A Home Office statement said this would allow ministers to deliver on its new Illegal Migration Bill as it would mean those coming to the UK illegally, who “cannot be returned to their home country”, will be “in scope to be relocated to Rwanda”.
The government source said it would “seal off all the loopholes” for those arriving illegally, including those claiming to be victims of modern slavery.
Dowden defends ‘tone-deaf’ comment
Ms Braverman’s trip has been shrouded in controversy after some members of the media were excluded from going along.
She has also faced criticism for joking about the interior design while touring potential accommodation for asylum seekers.
Looking inside one of the properties, she said: “These houses are really beautiful, great quality, really welcoming and I really like your interior designer.
“I need some advice for myself.”
Asked if that was “tone-deaf”, Mr Dowden told Ridge: “Contrary to some of this characterisation of the policy, this is about making sure there is somewhere safe and secure for people to go to and actually the purpose of the Home Secretary’s visit was to further strengthen our relationships with Rwanda.”
The UN and human rights campaigners have warned that Rwanda is not a safe country to send asylum seekers, particularly those who are LGBT+.
The first deportation flight was stopped at the eleventh hour in June last year after an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights – and none have taken off since.
The scheme is seen as central to the Rishi Sunak’s plan to “stop the boats” – a promise he has staked his premiership on.
Throughout 2022, some 45,728 people crossed to the UK via the Channel – up 60% on the previous year.
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Earlier this month, the prime minister announced a package that will see a new detention centre established in France as well as the deployment of more French personnel and enhanced technology to patrol beaches in a shared effort to drive down illegal migration.
However, the EU and UN are among those who have warned a new bill to ban asylum applications if people enter the UK through unauthorised means violates international law.