Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain dodged a potentially dire threat to his leadership on Wednesday, preserving for now his beleaguered government’s immigration plan to put asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda.
In an effort to overcome resistance from British courts, lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament voted to back legislation declaring Rwanda a safe country for asylum seekers.
But the victory in the House of Commons, by a vote of 320 to 276, came after two tense days of debate that exposed deep divisions within Mr. Sunak’s governing Conservative Party, having prompted a rebellion Tuesday of around 60 of his lawmakers who tried unsuccessfully to toughen the legislation.
The government gained the upper hand over the rebels on Wednesday by presenting them with the stark choice of voting in favor of the bill or risking a parliamentary defeat that could have wrecked the Rwanda policy altogether and delivered a crushing blow to the prime minister at the start of an election year.
The vivid display of disunity, nevertheless, has damaged Mr. Sunak’s authority. And it raised further questions about the effectiveness of the contentious legislation, which will now be considered by the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of Parliament, where more opposition is expected.
Under the Rwanda scheme, which has yet to be carried out, asylum seekers who arrive on the British coast in small, often unseaworthy, inflatable boats would be sent to Rwanda to have their claims heard there. But even if they were granted refugee status they would have to stay in the African country rather than settle in Britain.
The program has been condemned by human rights groups and refugee charities, and was ruled unlawful last year by Britain’s Supreme Court. The latest legislation is designed to redress the concerns raised by the court, although critics worry that the Rwanda policy could still be in breach of international law.
The Supreme Court ruled that it was not legal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda because there was a risk that they would be returned to their countries of origin, where they might be in jeopardy. The new legislation was designed to overcome that hurdle.
Some of its Conservative Party supporters believe it is not strict enough, however, and it was they who harried the government this week, pressing it for further assurances that ministers would ignore any attempt to stop deportations and brush aside interventions by the European Court of Human Rights.
On Tuesday, two Conservative lawmakers, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith, resigned party positions in order to join the rebellion and vote for amendments to toughen the bill in defiance of instructions. One junior ministerial aide quit her post, too.
The House of Lords is expected to dilute the legislation when it takes it up, analysts say, meaning the bill could face more hurdles in Parliament. This is expected soon, but no date has yet been set for the bill’s consideration in the upper chamber.
Even assuming the legislation wins approval, there could be more challenges in court to stop any deportations. And most analysts doubt that the British government would be able to deport more than a few hundred of the approximately 30,000 who arrived in small boats last year.
The number of people coming to Britain on the boats is small compared with the 672,000 who immigrated legally in the year ending in June. But the arrivals are a huge embarrassment to Mr. Sunak and other supporters of Brexit, who promised during the 2016 referendum to “take back control” of the country’s frontiers.
The government argues that its Rwanda policy will deter people from making the dangerous, sometimes fatal, journey, and hopes that it will be able to start the flights soon — ahead of a general election expected in the fall — demonstrating its determination to stop the cross channel traffic.
But to date, not a single asylum seeker has been put on a plane to Rwanda, and critics accuse the government of wasting money on an unworkable scheme. The British have already paid just over $300 million to the Rwandan government with a further $63 million to come, though the country’s president, Paul Kagame, told the BBC on Wednesday that the cash could be returned if no migrants are sent there.
The opposition Labour Party, which is well ahead in opinion polls, says it would scrap the plan. On Wednesday, its leader, Keir Starmer, asked Mr. Sunak to account for claims that the government had lost contact with more than 4,000 people it had lined up for deportation to Rwanda.