Sunak threatens to leave ECHR if Rwanda plan is blocked as he says border control ‘more important than membership’

4 April 2024, 00:54 | Updated: 4 April 2024, 05:21

Sunak threatens to cut ties with the ECHR over his Rwanda plan
Sunak threatens to cut ties with the ECHR over his Rwanda plan. Picture: Getty Images

By Flaminia Luck

Rishi Sunak has claimed controlling immigration is more important than "membership of a foreign court" in his strongest hint yet the UK could leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

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The Prime Minister defended his approach to tackling small boats crossings in an interview on Wednesday, where he strongly suggested he would leave the ECHR if it blocked his landmark Rwanda policy.

In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful, as it said genuine refugees would be at risk of being returned to their home countries, where they could face harm.

This is in breach of the ECHR which prohibits torture and inhuman treatment, of which the UK is a signatory.

Mr Sunak said he had done "more than any other prime minister in history" to tackle the problem of small boat crossings.

In the first three months of this year, over 5,000 people have made the journey, exceeding the previous record set in 2022.

London, UK. 21st Feb 2024. Rishi Sunak, MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, exits 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) at Parliament today. Credit: Imageplotter/Alamy Live News
Rishi Sunak has receieved plenty of opposition, even from his own party of the plan. Picture: Alamy

"I believe that all plans are compliant with all of our international obligations including the ECHR, but I do believe that border security and making sure that we can control illegal migration is more important than membership of a foreign court because it's fundamental to our sovereignty as a country," he told The Sun's Never Mind The Ballots programme.

A number of right-wing Conservative MPs, including former home secretary Suella Braverman, have pushed to leave the ECHR, over fears it could thwart the government's plans to deport asylum seekers to the African nation.

Sunak has previously resisted such calls, but said he would be willing to defy orders if necessary to kick start his policy.

Read more: Sunak in danger of losing seat according to damning new MRP poll which predicts fewer than 100 Tory MPs

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill currently making its way through Parliament includes provisions that would allow ministers to ignore such orders.

However, members of One Nation Group of Tory MPs have warned against leaving, while others have said it would breach the Good Friday Agreement which includes a requirement to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Irish law.

The Rwanda Policy is 'stone cold bonkers', says James O'Brien

Labour's shadow immigration minister, Stephen Kinnock, said: "Rishi Sunak must think we're stupid to tell us his plan on small boats is working when we've just seen record high Channel crossings over the Easter Bank holiday weekend.

"Arrivals on small boats are up this year and the Tories are floundering around trying to find anyone to blame but themselves. When will they take responsibility and admit they are failing on a staggering scale?

"This is just another desperate attempt by the Prime Minister to appease factions in his own party and stave off an attack from right-wing Tory MPs.

"Yet again the interests of the country come second."

'Empty threat'

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael described the Prime Minister's comments as "nothing more than an empty threat to try to keep his mutinous MPs on side".

He said: "It doesn't matter how many times Rishi Sunak tries, the Rwanda scheme will remain a colossal waste of time and taxpayers' money."

In his interview, Mr Sunak insisted the Government had "plans in place" to implement the Rwanda policy as soon as the Bill was able to overcome opposition in the House of Lords.

He denied reports that there was no airline willing to take the asylum seekers.

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He also defended his broader approach to small boats, saying he had done "more than any other prime minister in history" to tackle the problem.

After a fall in crossings last year, more than 5,000 people made the journey in the first three months of 2024, exceeding the previous record set in 2022.

Mr Sunak said: "Progress is still being made. What are we doing with Albania? They accounted for a third of the arrivals we had the year before last.

"I negotiated a new deal with Albania. Obviously it's a safe country. If somebody comes here illegally we'll be able to return them back.

"We've then returned thousands of people back to Albania and what happened? They stopped coming. Now we need to replicate that."