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UK leader Rishi Sunak vows send migrants to Rwanda despite a court ban, tells lawmakers to back him

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Thursday he would “do what is necessary” to revive a blocked deal to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, even if it means ignoring human rights laws.

During a hastily scheduled news conference, Sunak vowed to press on with a plan that has roiled the governing Conservative Party and threatened his leadership.

He said that a new bill designed to override a U.K. Supreme Court ruling will end “the merry-go-round of legal challenges” that have prevented the government acting on its agreement with Rwanda to put migrants who reach Britain across the English Channel on a one-way trip to the East African country.

“We will get flights off the ground," Sunak said.

Refugee groups and legal experts have strongly criticized the plan as a breach of the U.K.'s human rights commitments. But Sunak's main political threat comes from members of his party who think it is not harsh enough.

It escalated when Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick quit the government late Wednesday, saying the government's bill “does not go far enough” and won’t work.

The Rwanda plan is central to the U.K. government’s self-imposed goal to keep unauthorized asylum-seekers in small boats from departing France in hopes of reaching England.

Britain and Rwanda agreed on a deal in April 2022 under which migrants who cross the Channel would be sent to Rwanda, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay.

The U.K. government argues the deportations will discourage others from making the risky sea crossing and break the business model of people-smuggling gangs. Critics say it’s both unethical and unworkable to send migrants to a country 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles) away with no chance of ever settling in the U.K.

No one has yet been sent to Rwanda under the plan, which has faced multiple legal challenges. Last month, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled the plan was illegal because Rwanda isn’t a safe country for refugees.

The government has refused to drop the plan despite the court's judgment. Britain and Rwanda have since signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak's government says the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination and to ignore parts of British human rights law to send migrants there.

The government says the law will allow it to “disapply” sections of U.K. human rights law when it comes to Rwanda-related asylum claims and make it harder to challenge the deportations in court.

Sunak said the bill "blocks every single reason that has ever been used to prevent flights to Rwanda taking off.”

He said that while asylum-seekers would have limited ways to fight deportation, “we have set the bar so high that it will be vanishingly rare for anyone to meet it.”

The bill has its first vote scheduled in the House of Commons next week. Lawmakers in the Conservative Party’s authoritarian wing think the bill is too mild and want the U.K. to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. Almost every European country, apart from Russia and Belarus, is bound by the convention and its court.

Sunak responded to his immigration minister's resignation by arguing that the bill went as far as the government could.

“If we were to oust the courts entirely, we would collapse the entire scheme,” he wrote in a letter to Jenrick.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta confirmed that his country would scrap the deal unless Britain stuck to international law.

“It has always been important to both Rwanda and the U.K. that our rule of law partnership meets the highest standards of international law, and it places obligations on both the U.K. and Rwanda to act lawfully,” he said in a statement.

Sunak has made “stopping the boats” one of his key pledges ahead of a national election that is due next year. He hopes that showing progress will help his Conservatives close a big polling gap with the opposition Labour Party.

While the Rwanda plan worries some centrist Conservative lawmakers who oppose Britain breaching its human rights obligations, the bigger danger for Sunak comes from the hard-line right wing represented by Jenrick and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Braverman, whom Sunak fired last month after she made a series of statements that deviated from the government line, is seen as likely to run for party leader if the Conservatives lose power in an election. The party contest could come even sooner if Conservative lawmakers think ditching Sunak will improve their chances.

Braverman criticized the Rwanda bill and said the law must go farther, including a ban on legal challenges to deportation and incarceration of asylum-seekers in military-style barracks.

“We have to totally exclude international law -– the Refugee Convention, other broader avenues of legal challenge,” she said.

Braverman did not answer directly when asked if she supported Sunak as prime minister.

“I want the prime minister to succeed in stopping the boats,” she said.

Jill Lawless, The Associated Press