The UK’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court Wednesday, dealing a potentially fatal blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship migration policy and sparking a furious revolt from the right wing of British politics.
The UK’s highest court ruled unanimously against the government, siding instead with a previous appeals court ruling that found the policy – which has been roundly condemned by humanitarian bodies – was not lawful.
Its ruling unambiguously dismantled the government’s appeal, and scuppers an effort to fly asylum seekers who arrive in the UK illegally to the east African nation. The plan was first announced in April 2022, but has been wrought with legal challenges and has failed to deport a single person.
Sunak said on Wednesday evening that he would instead pursue a formal treaty with Rwanda – a move that would be subject to further legal scrutiny – and would introduce “emergency legislation” that would enable Britain’s parliament to unilaterally declare Rwanda a safe country.
Judges found that Rwanda could not be considered a safe country to which to send asylum seekers, as the government has argued, because there was a risk that genuine refugees would be returned to the countries they had fled from.
The ruling led to calls from the right of the Conservative Party to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a prospect that has loomed over the government for months and has caused deep rifts between centrists and right-wingers in Britain’s ruling party.
Sunak did not endorse those calls on Wednesday but hinted that he would consider such a move if a re-worked policy was blocked. “I’m prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships to remove the obstacles in our way,” he said. “I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights.”
“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 their ruling.
They found that Rwanda’s system for processing asylum claims, its poor human rights record, and its previous failure to comply with non-refoulement agreements meant that the UK government could not be sure asylum seekers would have their claims considered safely and properly.
And they noted that as recently as 2021, the British government criticized Rwanda for “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture.”
Sunak told lawmakers on Wednesday that a new treaty with Rwanda was already being worked on. He admitted earlier that the ruling “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.”
A political fight erupts
More immediately, Sunak must work to navigate the battle within the Conservative Party that has been brewing for months and erupted following Wednesday’s ruling.
The Supreme Court made clear that the ECHR is not the only convention against which it considered the policy, stating that other international treaties and UK legislation protect refugees and asylum seekers from being deported without guarantees over their safety. But many on the right of his party have nonetheless been plotting a push to leave the ECHR if the court blocked the policy, a dramatic international withdrawal that moderates have strongly opposed, and were quick to offer ultimatums for Sunak after the ruling.
Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who was fired on Monday after a series of scandals, led those calls on Wednesday, calling for “emergency legislation” and writing on X (formerly known as Twitter) that “there is no chance of curbing illegal migration within the current legal framework.”
And Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson said Britain should “ignore the laws” and “just put the planes in the air now and send them to Rwanda,” PA Media reported.
In a scathing letter to Sunak on Tuesday after her sacking, Braverman had said the prime minister’s “magical thinking – believing that you can will your way through this without upsetting polite opinion – has meant you have failed to prepare any sort of credible ‘Plan B’” on illegal migration.
Braverman called Sunak “uncertain, weak, and lacking in the qualities of leadership that this country needs,” and criticized him for being unwilling to leave the ECHR to push the Rwanda plan through – drawing clear battle lines with the prime minister ahead of what could become a civil war within the party.
The verdict was closely watched in London and across the world, with Britain’s plan considered a test of the viability of offshoring asylum processing.
It was celebrated by humanitarian groups that had long opposed the plan; Care4Calais, which supports refugees in the UK and France, said the judgment “should bring this shameful mark on the UK’s history to a close.”
And Medecins Sans Frontiers said the ruling was an “encouraging result.”
“The new Home Secretary now has a chance to abandon this pointlessly cruel approach, and focus instead on providing safe routes for those seeking sanctuary in the UK. This is the only realistic and humane way of reducing the numbers risking their lives in the Channel.”
A costly failure
Wednesday’s ruling was categorical in crushing the government’s policy on multiple fronts. But its impact will be felt for some time; the judgment reignites a debate about illegal migration as a British general election nears, as well as setting the stage for a bitter round of Conservative infighting.
The Rwanda plan was unveiled in response to a soaring number of perilous small boat crossings made by asylum seekers across the English Channel. The rate of crossings has risen rapidly in recent years, a trend Sunak has pledged to reverse.
Under the policy, some asylum seekers would be sent to Rwanda for their asylum claims to be processed. Successful claimants would then be allowed to remain in Rwanda, while those who were unsuccessful would be sent back to their countries of origin.
The court found that concerns about the Rwandan asylum processing system, and its human rights record, were serious enough to rule the policy illegal.
The scheme was unveiled by former Home Secretary Priti Patel and backed by her successor, Suella Braverman, who was fired from the post on Monday after a string of controversies.
But it has been a costly and public failure for three successive prime ministers. The UK has paid the Rwandan government £140 million ($177 million) for the proposal, the BBC reported.
No flights have taken place; the first scheduled flight to Rwanda was stopped at the 11th hour last year, following an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights, and months of legal challenges then stalled the program.
Natalie Elphicke, the Conservative MP for Dover where the vast majority of small boat crossings to England end their journey, said on Wednesday that the ruling “means the policy is effectively at an end. No planes will be leaving and we now need to move forward.”
The number of undocumented people entering Europe, and then making their way to Britain, has spiraled this year due to conflict, global inequality and climate change, exacerbating a migrant crisis across the continent.
Opposing illegal migration has become a key pillar of the beleaguered Conservative Party’s pitch to voters, amid polls indicating it has lost support of the public and is heading towards a general election defeat next year.
Its key figures, including Sunak and Braverman, have been accused of using inflammatory language towards illegal migrants as part of a push for votes.
“(Sunak) was told over and over again that this would happen: that it wouldn’t work, and it was just the latest Tory gimmick,” opposition leader Keir Starmer said in the House of Commons on Wednesday. “But he bet everything on it, and now he’s totally exposed.”
“Whether he likes it or not, he’ll have to go back to his office, back to the drawing board, and start from scratch,” Starmer said.
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