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Parliament vote upholds UK policy to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak won a temporary victory in the U.K. Parliament tonight. He fought off a rebellion from members of his own Conservative Party and won their support for his plan to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda. Tonight, that plan passed a key hurdle, but it is nowhere close to a done deal. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been following this story from our bureau in London, and she joins us now. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So, Lauren, tell us what happened tonight.

FRAYER: Well, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak survived what is the biggest challenge, probably, to his leadership so far, and it came from within his own Conservative Party. Hard-liners threatened to vote against one of his signature policies, a plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda in Central Africa.

SUMMERS: OK. And how exactly would that work?

FRAYER: So Sunak basically wants to outsource the U.K. asylum system to Rwanda. So Syrians, Afghans, other asylum-seekers who land in England, crossing the English Channel by boat without visas, would be flown to Central Africa to be processed and resettled there. Now, this is something that's been criticized by human rights groups. It's been struck down by the courts. Sunak revised the policy to try to get around that. Hard-liners then accused him of watering it down too much, and it all came to a vote in Parliament tonight.

SUMMERS: OK. And how did that go?

FRAYER: You know, the volume of the voice vote tells you something about how emotional this issue is and how contentious it's been. Here's what it sounded like.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As many as are of that opinion, say aye.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The contrary, no.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: No.

FRAYER: The ayes did win it, 313 to 269. That means this Rwanda plan stays alive for now, but nobody is getting deported anytime soon. This still faces amendments, more votes and possibly more legal challenges as well.

SUMMERS: And, Lauren, as you know, immigration is also an emotional issue here in the U.S. Do British people support the idea of sending immigrants off to Rwanda rather than resettling them there?

FRAYER: So many Britons saw the Brexit vote, the exit from the European Union, as a vote to stop the free flow of Europeans into Britain. But they also realized that parts of the U.K. economy rely on foreign labor - the National Health Service, for example. I talked to Kelly Beaver. She's the U.K. head of the polling company Ipsos, and she says, you know, while Britons have nuanced views on immigration, the latest Ipsos poll shows only 10% of them believe that Sunak's government is doing a good job on immigration.

KELLY BEAVER: It's a highly emotive topic. It certainly doesn't help if they perceive you as a divided party. It's not going to help the Conservative Party close the gap that they're seeing in the polls.

FRAYER: Sunak is trailing in the polls ahead of an election next year. And by the way, a similar crisis has actually been playing out in France, just south of here. Yesterday, the French government's signature immigration bill was defeated.

SUMMERS: And, Lauren, on this proposal with Rwanda, what happens next here?

FRAYER: I mean, there will be amendments to the legislation that was approved today. Those will have to get voted on. Then the upper house of Parliament will have to vote, probably in January. There could be more court challenges. I mean, Sunak wrote into this legislation declaring that Rwanda is a safe country for migrants who may be fleeing persecution elsewhere. It's not at all clear that courts will agree with that. Sunak has said he's willing to pull out of human rights treaties if that's what it takes to push this through. He is staking his reelection campaign on this. He is trailing in the polls, and he may be voted out of office before he's ever able to make this a law.

SUMMERS: NPR's Lauren Frayer in London - Lauren, thank you.

FRAYER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.