Two migrants who flew to Rwanda voluntarily 'show it is safe country' James Cleverly says

The home secretary insisted the Rwanda deportation scheme, which one of his aides described as 'crap', would have a 'deterrent effect'.

Home Secretary James Cleverly speaking to the media outside BBC Broadcasting House in London, after appearing on the BBC One current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg. Picture date: Sunday June 23, 2024.
Home secretary James Cleverly defended Rwanda deportation scheme, which has been halted until after the general election. (Alamy)

James Cleverly has said the two migrants who agreed to be flown to Rwanda under a voluntary relocation system show it is a "safe" country.

The home secretary suggested the pair were proof the Conservative Party's proposal to forcibly deport Channel migrants to Rwanda would work effectively — with the East African nation holding up its end of the agreement.

He told the BBC's Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme that while it would be "inappropriate" to go into details, the feedback he's received suggests the pair who volunteered to go to Rwanda are "safe".

"It shows that the receiving end of the system is working," he said, adding: "Rwanda is demonstrating, both to the refugees that the United Nations sent to Rwanda and the ones that have come from the UK, that they are a safe and welcoming country.

"That undermines the legal arguments against the flights", the home secretary added, claiming this is more about "proving the concept that Rwanda is a safe country", than dealing with an asylum backlog of over 100,000 people.

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Cleverly was forced to defend recent remarks by his aide James Sunderland, who told a private audience of Tory supporters that the flagship immigration policy is "crap".

The home secretary said his colleague has "worked incredibly hard" on getting the Safety of Rwanda Bill through, suggesting he used the word "crap" to "shock and grab the attention of the audience".

Sunderland told the crowd in April that once the deportation flights take off, "it will send such a shockwave across the Channel that the gangs will stop".

Cleverly said this point was "absolutely right", insisting that the flights would have a "deterrent effect on the people smuggling gangs and the people they are making money from".

"Indeed, a number of other European countries are exploring third country processing arrangements similar to Rwanda. The only people seemingly that are heading in the other direction are Labour," he added.

"Labour are the ones saying they are going to scrap it, even though the deterrent effect is already starting to have an impact."
Tory election candidate for Bracknell, James Sunderland, suggested the Rwanda scheme was 'crap'. (UK Parliament/DAVID WOOLFALL)

Cleverly denied privately describing the Rwanda scheme using language "too rude to say on TV at 9am in the morning", claiming that is what shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has been saying.

"I have been absolutely consistent that where I have had frustrations, it is because we spoke almost exclusively about Rwanda and we didn't speak about things like the small boats operation command, which has been up and running for over a year... or immigration enforcement."

"If I have used intemperate language it's because my frustration was that I think as a government we spoke exclusively about one policy."

He suggested Labour's proposal for an "allegedly new" returns unit and border command would be fulfilling the roles already carried out by immigration enforcement and Border Force already carry out, respectively.

With more than 12,000 migrants believed to have crossed the English Channel so far this year, nearly 900 of whom arrived on Tuesday alone, Cleverly was challenged on the idea that people were somehow being deterred.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, from a Border Force vessel following a small boat incident in the Channel, as migrant Channel crossings near 10,000 for the year so far. Picture date: Friday May 24, 2024. (Photo by Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)
Cleverly defended his government's record on tackling Channel crossings despite large numbers still making the journey. (Getty Images)

The home secretary accepted the figures for Tuesday were "disappointing and frustrating", but that there was also a recent period of consistent good weather where "almost no one came across the Channel". He also hailed the success of the UK's arrangements with French coastal authorities, who have been stopping "hundreds of people" from making the perilous journey.

With Cleverly accusing Labour of trying to "re-invent" pre-existing functions to tackle illegal migration, Kuenssberg later challenged shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson on how her party would tackle the problem, should it win the July 4 general election.

"We've got to process cases, we've got to deal with the backlog, and alongside that our commitment is to a border security command that will deal at source with the criminal gangs who are exploiting this," the Houghton and Sunderland South candidate said.

"We will approach it as a national security issue... We are serious about doing it, we have to make sure we protect our borders.

"But if the Conservatives thought that this plan around Rwanda was going to work and that they were going to get flights off the ground, I'm not sure they would have called the election for now."

However, earlier this month, the shadow home secretary refused to rule out sending migrant to a third country to have their claims processed. She told Kuenssberg: “Keir [Starmer] has always said we would look at what works and there are different kinds of… I think there’s the offshore processing arrangements and things that have already been used at different times in the past.

“For example, the Dublin Agreement did mean that under that scheme, some people were returned to France or to Germany or other countries so to have their claims processed there.”

Despite facing vocal opposition to the Rwanda plan at home, the Tories have been keen to stress that other European state have also been considering third-party deportation schemes.

In a letter sent to the European Commission in May, a group of 15 European countries called on the EU's executive body to introduce an effective combined approach to dealing with illegal migration within the bloc, including "potential cooperation with third countries on return hub mechanisms".

"In order to decrease the overall pressure on our migration management, it is important that member states have the possibility to transfer those asylum applicants for whom a safe third country alternative is available to such countries," the letter adds.

"Therefore, the application of the concept of ‘safe third countries’ in EU asylum law should be reassessed."

The letter was signed by senior ministers from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Romania and Finland.

Many of these countries, particularly Italy and Greece, take in a sizeable portion of migrants who have made the dangerous crossing across the Mediterranean Sea, many of whom say they are fleeing poverty, conflict and persecution.

European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen’s party, the European People’s Party (EPP) has also backed the idea of Rwanda-style deportation schemes. In its manifesto for the June EU elections, the European Parliament's largest party said: “We are committed to the fundamental right to asylum, but the EU, together with its member states, must have the right to decide whom and where is it [sic] granted.

“We will conclude agreements with third countries to ensure asylum seekers can also be granted protection in a civilised and safe way. We want to implement the concept of safe third countries.

“Anyone applying for asylum in the EU could also be transferred to a safe third country and undergo the asylum process there. In case of a positive outcome, the safe third country will grant protection to the applicant on-site.”

The party said the criteria for a safe third country would be "in line with the core obligations of the Geneva Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights".

While the international convention has been a major sticking point for Rishi Sunak, he has refused to rule out pulling out of it if it means getting the Rwanda scheme up and running.

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