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The British parliament’s upper house voted this week to delay a controversial treaty to send people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom to Rwanda, a symbolic setback to the government’s flagship – but lingering – plan to deter asylum seekers, the New York Times reported.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had urged members of the House of Lords four days ago not to impede his policy, which he considers a tool to deter migrants from making the hazardous crossing of the English Channel, and a policy he described as “the will of the people.”

Even so, in a 214-to-171 vote, the chamber voted to delay the ratification of a crucial treaty ensuring the migrants’ protection in Rwanda.

The treaty was drafted in response to a November 2023 UK Supreme Court ruling that the African country did not offer the required level of safety for refugees, meaning that the deal would be contrary to international and UK law.

In response, the government created the “safety of Rwanda” bill, which deems the African nation to be a safe place for asylum seekers and requires Britain’s courts and tribunals to treat it as such.

Though Monday’s outcome would only be symbolic in impact, it signaled the tone of the Lords’ debate next week when they will discuss the so-called “Safety of Rwanda” bill, an attempt to circumvent the top court’s verdict by writing into law that the African country is safe enough for migrants.

Sunak’s strategy of putting pressure on the House of Lords and overpassing courts is a “step towards totalitarianism,” member of the chamber Lord Carlisle told Sky News.

Meanwhile, the prime minister said he was ready to “ignore” international law to make his plan work, answering concerns that the deal breached section 39 of the Rules of the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The section provides that the ECHR can halt an asylum seeker’s deportation if there is a “real risk of serious and irreversible harm.”

Last week, the lower House of Commons passed the bill as a rebellious faction within Sunak’s Conservative party caved in at the last minute. Naysayers on the right justified their opposition by saying that in its current state, the legislation left the deal “exposed to litigation and the Strasbourg court.”

Sunak had promised late last year that the first flights to Rwanda would take off this spring. However, amid the lengthening saga opposing him and British institutions as well as his own colleagues, no migrant has reached the African country.

Still, the UK has already sent $300 million to the Rwandan government as part of the deal. If Sunak’s plan fails, Rwanda could “return the money,” President Paul Kagame told the BBC.

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