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Rishi Sunak secures Commons approval of controversial Rwanda Bill

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has fought off Conservative rebels to win a crucial vote on the third reading of his government's key Safety of Rwanda Bill late on Wednesday evening.

He faced a test of his authority and his nerve as lawmakers voted on the bill on tougher immigration measures which would see some asylum-seekers sent on a one-way trip to Rwanda.

But Sunak's flagship Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill passed the muster by 320 votes to 276, a majority of 44.

The scheme had been bogged down by legal challenges, with the first deportation flight in June last year blocked by a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights.

In November, Britain's Supreme Court ruled the plan to be unlawful saying that Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country.

In response to the court ruling, Britain and Rwanda signed a treaty pledging to strengthen protections for migrants. Sunak’s government argues that the treaty allows it to pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe destination.

Dissent over the bill cost him two party deputy chairmen - Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith - who quit in order to vote against the government on the amendments. A junior ministerial aide also resigned.

Sunak made the controversial and expensive immigration policy central to his bid to win an election to be held later this year.

To do that he needed to unite the Conservatives, who trail far behind the opposition Labour party in opinion polls.

Moderates within his party were worried the policy is too extreme, concerns underscored when the United Nations’ refugee agency said this week that the Rwanda plan “is not compatible with international refugee law.”

In contrast, many on the party’s powerful right wing think the bill doesn't go far enough in deterring migration to the UK. Hardliners’ attempts to toughen the bill by closing down avenues of appeal for asylum-seekers failed on Tuesday.

Britain's Home Secretary James Cleverly, centre right, visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda in December
Britain's Home Secretary James Cleverly, centre right, visits the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda in December - Ben Birchall/PA

The Rwanda policy is key to Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats” bringing unauthorised migrants to the UK across the English Channel from France.

London and Kigali made a deal almost two years ago under which migrants who reach Britain across the Channel would be sent to Rwanda, where they would stay permanently.

Britain has paid Rwanda about €280m under the agreement - but no one has yet been sent to the East African country.

The bill will now go to the House of Lords where peers have threatened to amend the deportation plan to ensure it complies with international law.