What is the UK's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and how many could go?

Rishi Sunak attends a press conference at Downing Street in London

Plans for the UK to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda have been passed by Parliament.

The Rwanda bill was introduced to allow the scheme to go ahead after the Supreme Court ruled it was unlawful.

What is the Rwanda asylum plan?

The government says any asylum seeker entering the UK "illegally" after 1 January 2022, from a safe country such as France, could be sent to Rwanda.

They would have their asylum claims processed there, rather in than the UK.

If successful, they could be granted refugee status and allowed to stay in the landlocked east-central African country.

If not, they could apply to settle in Rwanda on other grounds, or seek asylum in another "safe third country".

No asylum seeker would be able to apply to return to the UK.

Ministers say the plan will deter people from arriving in the UK on small boats across the English Channel.

Chart showing the number of people crossing the English Channel in boats (April 2024)

How many asylum seekers could be sent to Rwanda?

According to BBC home and legal correspondent Dominic Casciani, at the time the legislation was approved by Parliament, there were 52,000 asylum seekers who could potentially be sent to Rwanda.

On 28 April, the government said it would start to detain people ahead of their removal within the next few weeks.

However, Home Office documents show that of 5,700 asylum seekers in the first group identified, contact has been lost with 3,557.

A government source denied they were missing, and insisted the Home Office could contact everyone in scope for removal to Rwanda.

Under a separate scheme, the UK has returned a first failed asylum seeker to Rwanda under a voluntary removals programme, it is understood.

Migrants whose claims are rejected are offered up to £3,000 to move there.

When could the first flights leave?

Speaking on 22 April, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the first flight to Rwanda would leave in 10 to 12 weeks. Previously, the government said it aimed to start the flights in spring.

Mr Sunak said there would be "multiple flights a month through the summer and beyond".

He said the government had "an airfield on standby" and had booked commercial charter planes.

Members of the staff board a plane reported by British media to be first to transport migrants to Rwanda, at MOD Boscombe Down in June 2022
Last-minute legal challenges prevented the first Rwanda flight from leaving the UK in June 2022 [Reuters]

The first flight taking migrants to Rwanda was scheduled for June 2022, but was cancelled shortly before take-off because of legal challenges.

What is the Rwanda bill and could it be challenged?

After the Supreme Court ruled that the scheme was unlawful, the government introduced a bill to make clear in UK law that Rwanda is a safe country.

The legislation - which was finally approved on 22 April after intense political wrangling - orders the courts to ignore key sections of the Human Rights Act.

It also compels the courts to disregard other British laws or international rules - such as the international Refugee Convention - which would block deportations to Rwanda.

The UK government also signed a new migration treaty with Rwanda, which Home Secretary James Cleverly said guarantees that anyone sent there would not risk being returned to their home country.

The Rwanda bill was fiercely criticised by opposition parties and by many charities representing asylum seekers.

After the bill passed, the illegal migration minster Michael Tomlinson said further legal challenges were expected.

These are likely to come both from individual asylum seekers appealing against their own deportation, and specialist expert refugee organisations.

Mr Sunak said that 25 courtrooms and 150 judges were available to deal with any legal cases, and there were "500 highly trained individuals ready to escort illegal migrants all the way to Rwanda", with a further 300 awaiting training.

Is Rwanda safe and what was the Supreme Court ruling?

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful.

It said genuine refugees would be at risk of being returned to their home countries, where they could face harm.

This breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits torture and inhuman treatment. The UK is a signatory to the ECHR.

The ruling also cited concerns about Rwanda's poor human-rights record, and its past treatment of refugees.

Judges said that in 2021, the UK government had itself criticised Rwanda over "extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture".

They also highlighted a 2018 incident, when Rwandan police opened fire on protesting refugees, killing at least 11.

What will the Rwanda plan cost?

The UK government had paid £240m to Rwanda by the end of 2023.

However, the total payment will be at least £370m over five years, according to the National Audit Office .

If more than 300 people are sent to Rwanda, the UK would pay a one-off sum of £120m to help boost the country's economy, with further payments of £20,000 per individual relocated.

On top of that, up to £150,000 will be paid for each person sent there, the NAO report said.

These figures would not include the cost of payments to anyone to who chooses to go to Rwanda voluntarily.

UK Home Secretary James Cleverly arrives at Kigali International Airport on 5 December, 2023
Home Secretary James Cleverly visited Rwanda in December 2023, after the Supreme Court ruling [Getty Images]

Previously released official figures suggested that removing each individual to a third country would cost £63,000 more than keeping them in the UK.

In December 2023 the prime minister claimed that the Rwanda plan would "literally save us billions in the long run", but did not explain the figures.

The UK's asylum system costs nearly £4bn a year, including about £8m a day on hotel accommodation.

Failure to process asylum claims efficiently "has led to unacceptable costs to the taxpayer", a report by MPs said in October 2023.

Why is the UK Rwanda plan a problem for Ireland?

The Irish government said many asylum seekers are arriving from Northern Ireland because they are "fearful" of being sent to Rwanda.

It believes that about 6,000 people have crossed the land border in 2024.

The Irish government is planning to ask for new powers so it can return these asylum seekers to the UK.

However, Mr Sunak said the UK would not take them.

"We're not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU doesn't accept returns back to France where illegal migrants are coming from," he told ITV.