Ministers will face a fierce battle in parliament over plans to force some asylum seekers to be relocated to Rwanda, a Labour peer and former child refugee has vowed.
Alf Dubs, who was brought to Britain from Czechoslovakia on one of the Kindertransport trains in 1939, told the Guardian that the government was trying to “ride roughshod” over international agreements designed to help those seeking sanctuary.
After the announcement that many of those who arrived in the UK on small boats from across the Channel would be removed and settled in Rwanda, Dubs said peers would fight against the “awful, shocking decision” when legislation was introduced.
“I think it’s a way of getting rid of people the government doesn’t want, dumping them in a distant African country, and they’ll have no chance of getting out of there again,” he said.
“I think it’s a breach of the 1951 Geneva conventions on refugees. You can’t just shunt them around like unwanted people.”
While Conservative MPs have largely welcomed the policy as a way to try to avoid desperate migrants being exploited by people-trafficking gangs and curtail the record high numbers of crossings, Dubs said there would probably be legal challenges and fierce resistance from fellow peers.
He pointed to an amendment to the nationality and borders bill, passed in the House of Lords earlier this month, which said the government could proceed with any offshoring only with the express permission of both chambers in parliament. The amendment is likely to be scrapped when the bill returns to the Commons next week.
Asked if the resettlement scheme was ever likely to get off the ground, given the threat of judicial reviews and other court action, Dubs said: “I think it’s unlikely. As soon as they try and remove one person, I’m sure there’ll be a legal challenge, and I’m not sure the government will win it.”
Despite the home secretary Priti Patel’s reported boast to Tory MPs that she would stand up to “lefty lawyers”, Dubs said the government appeared “quite happy to ride roughshod” over the UK’s commitments under the Geneva conventions.
He continued: “If [Patel] says she’ll get rid of the lefty lawyers’ claims, well, I think she may have another thing coming. My understanding is that they’re going to have real difficulties in getting this through anyway.”
Dubs said the legislation needed to put the deal with Rwanda on legal footing would lead to “a battle in parliament”, particularly in the House of Lords.
Referring to the process by which the Commons and Lords keep disagreeing and sending bills between them, Dubs added: “No doubt, the government will make us sit and then just ping-pong it through until they think they can wear us down. But I think there will be quite a battle about this.”
The bishop of Durham, Paul Butler, who sits in the House of Lords, also vowed to fight the move. “The whole idea of declaring asylum seekers’ claims as inadmissible is wrong,” he told the Guardian.
“Where asylum seekers arrive from or how, is irrelevant in international law. It is also wrong to apparently punish those seeking asylum. It is the traffickers who need to be targeted and brought to justice for their terrible crimes.”
Butler called on the UK not to “offload our international responsibility on to another nation” – warning this would “effectively be conducting state-sponsored trafficking ourselves if we forcibly remove people from our shores to a nation these asylum seekers do not know and have no wish to go to for consideration as asylum seekers”.
Butler agreed with Dubs the project would be “extremely costly” and said the money would be better spent on improving the way asylum seekers’ claims were processed in Britain, and providing further safe and legal routes alongside those that existed for Afghans, Ukrainians and British Nationals Overseas in Hong Kong.
The Home Office has said the £120m partnership with Rwanda was necessary because existing approaches had failed and that there was no single solution to tackling migrant crossings in the Channel.
It has praised Rwanda’s “strong experience in supporting and integrating refugees” and said the country was “internationally recognised for its safety, strong governance, low corruption, gender equality and as one of the fastest growing economies across Africa”.