The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has ruled that a controversial government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is “unlawful” in a big blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government’s hardline immigration policy.
Britain signed a deal with Rwanda last April under which some migrants who arrive in the UK across the English Channel on boats were to be sent to the East African country where their asylum claims would be processed.
The judgement backed a London Court of Appeals decision on June 29 that the policy is unlawful under Britain’s Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. The first deportation flight to Rwanda was blocked by a last-minute injunction from the ECHR on June 14.
The ruling comes a day after Sunak sacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who zealously backed the stalled Rwanda Plan. In a letter released on Wednesday, Braverman criticised Sunak over his handling of the case. She had called for the UK to leave the ECHR if the Rwanda plan was blocked.
Here is what to know about the ruling and the debate around it:
What did the UK Supreme Court rule on the Rwanda plan?
The court concluded that the UK is party to various conventions, including the refugee convention, which would dictate that the Rwanda plan is unlawful, owing to the potential of human rights abuses in Rwanda or the refugees’ home countries.
“There are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda,” the judges wrote in the verdict.
The UN refugee convention stands against refoulement – returning refugees to countries where they might be in danger.
The court said that Rwanda was not safe for refugees and that people could only be sent to countries that follow the non-refoulement rule. The UN refugee agency has produced evidence of Rwanda breaching the rule in a deal with Israel.
The judgement does, however, affirm that Rwanda entered the agreement with the UK in good faith and has given assurances to safeguard those sent to the country.
President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed said that the judgement should not be seen as a political stance and is based purely on UK law, owing to principles such as the ECHR as well.
The UK was the first nation to ratify the ECHR in March 1951, two years before it came into effect to ensure governments protect human rights and security.
In 1998, UK’s Human Rights Act also enshrined ECHR into law, enabling English courts to enforce rights guaranteed by the convention.
The verdict is likely to trigger sharp reactions from some of the ruling Conservative party leaders.
What’s the Rwanda plan?
The Rwanda plan was announced in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson to dissuade asylum seekers from journeying to the UK for about 32km (20 km) across the English Channel with “dangerous” methods such as inflatable boats.
Under the scheme, those who have arrived in Britain without documents since January 1, 2022, would have been deported to Rwanda, about 6,400km (4,000 miles) away, where their claims would be assessed. Sending each asylum seeker there would cost on average 169,000 pounds ($210,208), the UK government has said.
The scheme had faced legal challenges since it was announced.
Tightening controls on refugees, a new Illegal Migration Act passed in July entailed that anyone arriving by small boat would have their asylum claims made inadmissible and would be disqualified from using modern slavery laws to challenge government decisions to remove them in the courts.
The law also gives ministers the discretion to ignore ECHR injunctions. However, most provisions of the act have not been implemented so far.
Why has Sunak pursued the hardline migration policy?
Sunak and his Conservative party have pushed the flagship policy on immigration highlighting the growing number of people arriving in Britain using boats. But this year, 27,000 people have arrived on small boats compared to 45,775 people last year.
Britain currently spends over 3 billion pounds (approximately $4bn) a year to manage asylum applications. A major chunk of this cost is spent to house migrants while their claims are processed.
“Stopping the boats” was one of Sunak’s top five pledges after he became prime minister in October last year.
According to government figures in August, the backlog of asylum applications waiting for an initial decision hit a record high of more than 134,000, or 175,457 once dependents were included. Sunak had promised in December 2022 to clear this by the end of the year.
What have been the reactions to the court verdict?
The ruling has been welcomed by politicians and civil society groups, while Sunak has pledged to continue his efforts in handling refugees. Legally, the UK would not be allowed to proceed with the plan.
In a statement, Sunak expressed his disappointment, adding that the government will consider next steps.
“This was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats,” he said.
Some Conservative leaders have called for a more aggressive immigration policy while others said that a fresh look needed to be taken.
Human rights groups, however, have been pushing back on narratives that such measures are a viable solution.
Steve Smith, CEO of refugee charity Care4Calais and a claimant in the case, said the judgment is “a victory for humanity”.
“This grubby, cash-for-people deal was always cruel and immoral, but, most importantly, it is unlawful”, he posted on X.
Amnesty International UK has asked the government to now abandon the Rwanda plan and repeal the Illegal Migration Act.
🚨Ex cabinet minister Simon Clarke:
Now pass a law disapplying ECHR on Rwanda and maybe leave the convention on human rights altogether, he tells Rishi Sunak pic.twitter.com/fEsaaJ4WQ7
— Sam Coates Sky (@SamCoatesSky) November 15, 2023