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UK Supreme Court rules Rwanda asylum deportation plan unlawful

LONDON — Britain’s top court on Wednesday ruled against the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda — a goal sought by successive British prime ministers and that has been closely watched by other countries hoping to outsource migration issues while skirting international human rights obligations.

The ruling brings some sense of relief to asylum seekers already in Britain who have received threatening letters from the government. It is also a huge embarrassment for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, leaving his flagship effort to “stop the boats” in tatters, ahead of what is expected to be a difficult election year.

“The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the Home Secretary’s appeal, and upholds the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the Rwanda policy is unlawful,” stated the judgment.

“This is because there are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement [return] to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda,” it added.

Last year, more than 45,000 people crossed the English Channel from mainland Europe, often in flimsy, unseaworthy boats. Those numbers are aggravating to Britons who backed Brexit so their country could “take back control” of its borders. Sunak has made stopping the boats a central promise, with the Rwanda deportation plan the key element.

Despite Brexit pledges, net migration to U.K. hits record high

The Illegal Migration Act 2023 sought to prevent those who enter Britain via unofficial means from applying for asylum here. The law placed a legal duty on officials to detain and deport people back to their birth country, if that’s possible, or to a “safe third country,” including Rwanda, where their asylum claims can be processed. Once relocated, asylum seekers would be barred from ever entering Britain again.

The plan, which aspired to be something like Australia’s mandatory detention and offshoring, is more extreme than what other European government have so far tried to do.

The United Nations previously said that the British policy was at odds with international law and set “a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow.”

U.K. seeks to send migrants to Rwanda, an extreme plan others could copy

All five justices on the U.K. Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling that government’s plan was unlawful. The top court agreed that if they were returned to their home countries, they could face persecution or other inhumane treatment.

In other words, Britain’s Rwanda policy would breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court ruling is expected to reignite debate in Sunak’s Conservative Party about whether Britain should withdraw fully or partially from that human rights treaty — an agreement the country helped draft and was among the first to ratify.

Sonia Lenegan, an immigration lawyer, said the government may decide to keep its controversial migration law on the books, but the court ruling “forever delays” it from coming into effect. It is also possible that the government might try to renegotiate their asylum agreement with Rwanda.

Lenegan suggested that outcome, while a loss for the government, may actually be what some officials wanted. “If they won, they have to actually implement legislation they passed,” she said. “But Rwanda will be at capacity after accepting a few hundred people. It’s hard to remove people when you have nowhere to remove them to.”

By losing the case, she said, “they will have someone else to blame for the fact they can’t make legislation work and the fact the boats aren’t stopping. They can blame the Supreme Court, they can blame lawyers. They can blame someone other than themselves.”

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