Ms May, a former home secretary herself who is often seen as a hardliner on immigration, warned on Tuesday that the policy to send some migrants who arrive by unauthorised means 4,000 miles to East Africa could lead to an increase in the trafficking of women and children.
Coming under a barrage of criticism in the Commons, Home Secretary Priti Patel said that the policy is legal, as she continued her defence of it.
“I do not support the removal to Rwanda policy,” the former Conservative prime minister told the Commons on Tuesday.
“If it is the case that families will not be broken up… does she not believe, and where is her evidence, that this will not simply lead to an increase in the trafficking of women and children?”
Ms Patel responded by saying she would be happy to meet Ms May to discuss her concerns, prompting loud jeers from the Commons which was sitting to listen to her ministerial statement.
The home secretary had attempted to justify the plan by saying the prospect of being sent to Rwanda would disrupt the people-smuggling trade by acting as a deterrent for asylum seekers – and will curb migrant crossings of the English Channel in small boats.
She told MPs on Tuesday that the cost of the asylum system is the highest in more than two decades and puts undue pressure on public services.
Urging parliamentarians to back her proposal, she stressed that access to the UK’s asylum system must be based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers, whose “business model” she wants to break through the new approach.
Those genuinely in need of protection in Rwanda will be given up to five years of support through UK investment, Ms Patel said.
Responding to the address, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, criticised Ms Patel for failing to provide proper costs for her Rwanda plan, calling the scheme unethical and unworkable.
“The home secretary is just using this policy to distract from years of failure,” she said.
“She promised three years ago to half the number of crossings and instead they have increased ten fold.”
Meanwhile, SNP home affairs spokesperson Stuart McDonald said: “This is a cruel and a catastrophic policy. It will not hurt smugglers but will further seriously harm people who have fled persecution.”
The comments come after a stark intervention from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who told his Easter sermon on Sunday that the policy could not stand up to the judgment of God.
He said the UK is “subcontracting out our responsibilities” by sending migrants thousands of miles to east Africa, which he claimed is “the opposite of the nature of God who himself took responsibility for our failures”.
Opposition parties and some Tory MPs have also condemned the scheme, while more than 160 charities and campaign groups called it “shamefully cruel”, urging for it to be scrapped.