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UK's Parliament votes on plan to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A big vote is scheduled for later today in the U.K. Parliament on a plan to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda in Central Africa, no matter where they're from originally. The British government has signed a deal with Rwanda to take the immigrants the U.K. doesn't want. Human rights groups have criticized the plan. British and European courts have blocked it. But the British prime minister is pushing ahead, and his political future could depend on it. For more on all this, NPR's Lauren Frayer joins me now from London. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So who does the U.K. plan to deport to Rwanda?

FRAYER: These are, like, Syrians, Afghans...

FADEL: Oh.

FRAYER: ...Pretty much anyone else who arrives in England by boat without a visa. And instead of the U.K. hearing their asylum claims, Rwanda would do it. The idea is to basically offshore an overloaded and underfunded U.K. immigration system to Rwanda in Central Africa. The U.K. has paid Rwanda about $300 million so far to take these people. Supporters call this sort of, like, a creative solution for the U.K. to control its borders, but nobody has been deported to Rwanda yet.

FADEL: Why is that?

FRAYER: It's because U.K. and European courts have struck this down. They have ruled that Rwanda may not be a safe third country for all of these migrants, some of whom are fleeing persecution elsewhere.

FADEL: Yeah.

FRAYER: And so U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak revised the plan to try to address all of these legal concerns. And that is what Parliament is voting on today.

FADEL: So what did he change? And is there an expectation that this will pass?

FRAYER: I mean, that is the, like, 300 plus-million-dollar question. Sunak's new version declares that Rwanda is a safe country, like, writes that into U.K. law. It also declares that the U.K. government has the authority to ignore some European human rights laws. That is debatable legally, but Rishi Sunak says he's willing to even pull out of human rights treaties if the courts don't allow him to go through with this. Here he is at a news conference, sounding pretty exasperated and angry last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: It is your government, not criminal gangs or indeed foreign courts, who decides who comes here and who stays in our country.

FRAYER: So he's trying to address these human rights concerns that courts have brought up. But at the same time, he's trying to, like, act really tough on immigration amid a revolt from hardliners in his own Conservative party who are accusing him of watering down this bill and not being tough enough. Here is one of those critics, a fellow Conservative MP. His name is Mark Francois.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK FRANCOIS: The bill overall provides a partial and incomplete solution.

FRAYER: So Francois spoke to reporters yesterday basically threatening to vote against his own prime minister's bill. And a lot of Sunak's fellow Conservatives have said the same. So it's not at all clear that the prime minister has the votes to get this through.

FADEL: So what happens if it doesn't pass?

FRAYER: It looks really bad for Sunak. I mean, it'll show, basically, that he doesn't have the backing of his own party, and then anything could happen. They could vote him out as party leader and replace him - have a leadership contest and replace him as prime minister. He could then call fresh elections to try to thwart that and stay in party - in power. But all of that spells political instability for the U.K. And, you know, this is one more example of Conservatives doubling down on immigration as a populist issue. And we've seen that in the U.K. We've seen that across Europe and for that matter, in the U.S. But I have to say, polls show here in the U.K., immigration is not actually voters' top issue. And so this could be really risky for ruling Conservatives.

FADEL: NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thank you, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.