On 17th January 2024, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (a Select Committee of both UK Houses of Parliament) took evidence from Professor Sarah Singer on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, alongside Professor Tom Hickman (Blackstone Chambers; UCL) and Rashmin Sagoo (Chatham House).

The discussion focused on the bill’s requirement that, in the context of removing asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda, Rwanda be treated as a ‘safe’ country. The Committee asked whether this determination of safety was an appropriate step for Parliament to take; how this impacted the UK’s human rights obligations (particularly under the European Convention on Human Rights); and whether human rights concerns were addressed by the new UK-Rwanda asylum treaty. 

Professor Singer stated that the designation of Rwanda as ‘safe’ in the legislation was not appropriate from a constitutional perspective, and raised significant issues for the UK’s human rights compliance:

“The appropriate place for that determination is the courts, that’s what they’re set up to do. There are real dangers in the question being determined as a political issue within Parliament. There’s also issues with determination not being able to be subject to review further down the line.”

“Seeking to usurp the judicial function in this way also raises serious concerns about the protection of fundamental rights in the UK more broadly”.

When questioned on whether the UK-Rwanda asylum treaty addressed the human rights concerns in removing people to Rwanda, Professor Singer stated:

“Just because it’s a binding treaty doesn’t necessarily mean that Rwanda is going to abide by it. The Supreme Court in its recent judgment was very clear that it wasn’t calling into question the good faith of Rwanda abiding by its international agreements, but it called into question the capacity of Rwanda to do so.”

On the bill more broadly, Professor Singer commented:

“It’s quite ironic that there’s been a lot of political rhetoric about not wanting to have “foreign courts” making determinations on removals, but what this legislation is actually doing is limiting the ability of our domestic courts to appropriately consider these cases, and so making a referral to the Strasbourg Court much more likely.”

“The UK has signed up to the 1951 Refugee Convention which is a pragmatic response to addressing the global phenomenon of refugees, which is not going to go away any time soon. If the UK simply decides it wants to shirk its international obligations, then what’s going to stop many other countries shirking their international obligations as well? That doesn’t just include countries in the Global North but also countries in the Global South who are hosting 80%+ of the world’s refugees.” 

“The UK proportionately takes a very small number of asylum seekers and refugees in the global context. Within Europe we take far fewer than countries such as France and Germany. Perhaps a more pragmatic approach would be to look at ways to avoid people having to make perilous journeys, to support them in settling into the UK and becoming productive members of society.”

An earlier session of the Joint Committee meeting featured expert evidence from Zoe Bantleman (ILPA), Tyrone Steele (JUSTICE), Enver Solomon (Refugee Council) and Dr Mike Jones (Migration Watch UK) and focused on whether Rwanda could be considered a safe country, the ability of asylum seekers to challenge (or not) removal to Rwanda, and the effectiveness of the proposed ‘deterrent’ effect of the legislation. 

The Committee meeting took place whilst the bill was being debated in the House of Commons. The bill has since passed its third reading in the House of Commons and will next be considered by the House of Lords. 

Watch the video of the Joint Committee meeting online here (Professor Singer’s session begins at approximately 5pm).

Professor Singer is a Professor of Refugee Law at the Refugee Law Initiative, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and is Programme Director of the University of London’s Master’s programme in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. An earlier comment piece published by Professor Singer on the Safety of Rwanda Bill is available here.