Sunak pressed to end Rwanda bill impasse by exempting Afghan service veterans

<span>Conservative MPs and oppositions parties want assurances that Afghans who served alongside UK forces would not be flown to Rwanda if they arrived in the UK across the Channel.</span><span>Photograph: Stuart Brock/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Conservative MPs and oppositions parties want assurances that Afghans who served alongside UK forces would not be flown to Rwanda if they arrived in the UK across the Channel.Photograph: Stuart Brock/AFP/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak is under pressure to make last-minute concessions today to secure the passage of the Rwanda deportation bill by allowing exemptions for Afghans who served alongside UK forces.

The prime minister is facing calls from Conservative MPs and opposition parties to offer assurances that Afghans, including special forces veterans, will not be flown to Rwanda should they arrive in the UK across the Channel.

Home Office staff are warning that thousands of people who have been earmarked for deportation to Rwanda after arriving in the UK by small boats are expected to break contact with officials and disappear if the law passes.

As Sunak prepares to push the deportation bill through parliament, department insiders said they believed that many migrants who have received removal notices will go “underground”, abscond from Home Office accommodation and work in the informal economy.

Charities believe the move could plunge asylum seekers into a “serious safeguarding crisis”. Many could be vulnerable to exploitation, with some retreating back into the hands of trafficking gangs, as they seek to avoid statutory services and local authorities.

The Rwanda legislation has already been amended three times by peers, and faces a fourth round of so-called ping pong between the Commons and the Lords, potentially late into Monday night. Yet the bill is expected to finally pass after the prime minister said his patience was wearing thin.

A government source said “nobody is in the mood” for concessions on Afghan veterans. Downing Street is understood to be considering whether Sunak will hold a press conference tomorrow morning to urge peers not to “frustrate” the legislation further.

However, several Tory MPs have admitted privately that they are “uncomfortable” with Sunak’s refusal to exempt Afghan veterans. The Labour peer Des Browne, who tabled the amendment, warned of the implications for the security of the British armed forces.

Lord Browne, who was defence secretary from 2006 to 2008, said: “I can barely walk five yards in the Houses of Parliament without some Conservatives stopping me in a corridor and saying they wish the government would budge on this issue.

“They can’t understand why the government couldn’t concede something on this. I don’t understand why they’re not more questioning about the implications of this for our security and for our own armed forces.”

The Labour peer suggested last week he was told to “expect a statement of assurance” from the government over Afghan veterans who, because of “administrative shortcomings”, had been refused entry to the UK under existing schemes and were therefore considering “irregular” routes such as small boats across the Channel.

However, Downing Street later said it was not considering any concessions. “We believe that the bill as it stands is the right way forward,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson told reporters.

The former justice secretary Robert Buckland, the only Tory MP to vote against the government on the Afghan amendment, suggested the bill would finally make it through parliament if ministers were willing to compromise.

“There’s still a cohort of Afghans who are not in a safe place who put themselves in the line of danger not just to secure their country, but in the interests of freedom,” he said. “If the government were to offer some concession, as they did with modern-day slavery, it would unlock the bill.”

Government insiders argue that allowing an exemption for veterans could result in thousands of Afghans who had not supported UK forces claiming they had the right to be in the UK, slowing down the checking process for genuine cases. “If you introduce a loophole, people will use it,” one said.

However, given that the bill is now expected to pass, attention is shifting to the fate of about 40,000 migrants who live in limbo in the UK after arriving by irregular means since March 2023.

More than 24,000 of them have been issued with letters warning them that they are being considered for removal. Their status was made uncertain after the Illegal Migration Act came into force last year. They are supported by the state, but have no means to rebuild their lives.

Although there is widespread expectation among staff that only several hundred will be removed in a first flight, which Sunak initially promised would take off before spring, it will lead to many no longer reporting to the Home Office as required.

One official said: “People who have been told they are at risk of deportation will disappear. They have to report every week or every other week and prove they remain at their supplied address. If the bill passes, we know that they will not cooperate and they will be gone.”

Reacting to the comments, Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The reality is that the government’s plans are causing huge distress to vulnerable people and are pushing them into unsafe and dangerous situations.

“We urge the government to uphold the right to asylum and refocus its efforts on expanding safe routes, reuniting families torn apart by conflict, and cooperating with our European neighbours to develop fair and compassionate asylum frameworks.”

Staff involved in deportations are braced to have their leave cancelled as the department gears up for the removal of several hundred people.

One official said the Home Office had not given its staff who work with new arrivals enough training on how their jobs would change once the Rwanda bill passes. The Home Office is “nowhere near” being ready to process cases within 45 days as promised by Sunak’s Illegal Migration Act, the source said.