Supreme Court Rwanda ruling: government plan to send asylum seekers to east Africa is ruled unlawful

The government has been locked in a legal battle to send asylum seekers to Rwanda since the controversial policy was first announced in April 2022.
Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now

The government's controversial policy to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing and resettlement has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

This is a huge blow for Rishi Sunak, who has pinned his whole promise to "stop the boats" around this policy. More than 27,300 migrants have made unauthorised crossings of the English Channel already this year, official figures have showed. The government is likely to try and rework the plan to make it lawful, however it has already been delayed for more than 18 months.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

After a lengthy legal battle, five justices ruled today (15 November) that it is not safe for migrants to be sent to the east African nation. Campaigners have long argued that there's a risk asylum seekers will be sent back to their home countries from Rwanda where they're in danger, which is known as "refoulement".

Lord Reed, the President of the Supreme Court, said there were "substantial grounds for believing asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of refoulement". He said: "The Court of Appeal concluded there were such grounds, we are unanimously of the view they were entitled to reach that conclusion." He confirmed the Supreme Court thought there was a "substantial risk of refoulement" and said "a change is needed" for the policy to be legal.

The Home Office's case was that a "memorandum of understanding has been entered into between the UK and Rwandan governments" which, despite having no legal obligation, stated that asylum seekers would not be returned to their home countries. However, a key part of the evidence came from the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, the UN's refugee agency, which found that Israel had entered a similar agreement with Rwanda, and "asylum seekers were routinely moved to a neighbouring country where they were likely to be refouled".

Rishi Sunak has pledged to 'stop the boats' as part of his government promises - the Illegal Migration Bill has now passed through the upper house, with the controversial bill now set to become law. (Credit: Getty Images)Rishi Sunak has pledged to 'stop the boats' as part of his government promises - the Illegal Migration Bill has now passed through the upper house, with the controversial bill now set to become law. (Credit: Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak has pledged to 'stop the boats' as part of his government promises - the Illegal Migration Bill has now passed through the upper house, with the controversial bill now set to become law. (Credit: Getty Images)

The Supreme Court ruling is a “landmark judgment” which must be a “wake-up call to the government”, the International Rescue Committee UK said. Laura Kyrke-Smith, executive director, said: “We already knew the Rwanda plan was needlessly cruel and expensive, and now the Supreme Court has ruled it unlawful too. “This landmark judgment must serve as a wake-up call to the Government to abandon its pursuit of ineffective deterrence measures and deliver a pragmatic, humane and lawful asylum system instead. They must now urgently focus on clearing the asylum backlog, strengthening the asylum system and scaling up safe routes.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It ruling comes after former Home Secretary Suella Braverman accused Sunak of betraying her and the British people over immigration in a bombshell letter, and said the Prime Minister had no 'Plan B'. She is expected to call for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) following the ruling. However in its statement, the Supreme Court said that there were various treaties, including the UN Refugee Convention, which forbid the UK from putting asylum seekers at the risk of refoulement. Sunak is expected to address the ruling at Prime Minister's Questions at 12noon with new Home Secretary James Cleverly addressing the Commons at 12.30pm. The new Home secretary has already said that despite the ruling there is "appetite for this concept".

He said: "Across Europe, illegal migration is increasing and governments are following our lead – Italy, Germany and Austria are all exploring models similar to our partnership with Rwanda. We will carefully review today’s judgment to understand implications and next steps. We will continue to look at every possible avenue to disrupt the vile criminal gangs’ business model of putting innocent lives at risk for their own financial, selfish gain.”

Yvette Cooper MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said following the ruling: “The Prime Minister’s flagship policy has completely failed. This damning judgment on his Rwanda policy, where he has already spent more than £140 million of taxpayers’ money, exposes Rishi Sunak’s failure to get any grip or have any serious plan to tackle dangerous boat crossings, which are undermining border security and putting lives at risk.

 “Labour argued from the start this plan is unworkable and extortionately expensive, now it has been confirmed as unlawful because the government failed to ensure they had a robust and workable policy. Ministers knew about the weaknesses in this scheme from the start and yet they insisted on making it their flagship policy.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

 “The Conservatives have broken our asylum system leading to a record asylum backlog, with 175,000 stuck in limbo, costing British people £8 million a day in hotel bills. With 615 small boat crossings last Sunday alone, the government must stop chasing headlines and unworkable gimmicks, and urgently adopt Labour’s plan to reduce the backlog and for a cross-border police unit to go after the criminal gangs.” The policy was first announced under Home Secretary Priti Patel in April 2022, with plans for the first flight to take off around the end of May that year. The Home Office paid £120 million up front for the partnership. However the first flight was grounded after a late ECHR ruling, and since then no flights have taken off. Braverman famously described sending asylum seekers to Rwanda as her "dream".

Exhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty ImagesExhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images
Exhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images

In June, judges overturned a previous High Court ruling that said the nation in east Africa could be considered a “safe third country”. Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said “deficiencies” in the asylum system in Rwanda mean there is a “real risk” that asylum seekers deported there would be “returned to their home countries”, where they could face “persecution” - even if they have a legitimate claim. That ruling led to today's Supreme Court judgement.

Refugee charities have long claimed that the policy not comply with the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, and puts asylum seekers in harm’s way. Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, commented: “This is a victory for reason and compassion. We are delighted that the Supreme Court has affirmed what caring people already knew: the UK Government’s ‘cash for humans’ deal with Rwanda is not only deeply immoral, but it also flies in the face of the laws of this country.

“The stakes of this case could not have been higher. Every day in our therapy rooms we see the terror that this scheme has inflicted on survivors of torture who have come to the UK seeking sanctuary. Instead of devising inhumane policies that defy our legal and moral duties, the Government should focus on clearing the enormous asylum backlog, in which thousands of torture survivors are languishing, unable to recover or rebuild their lives."

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Speaking previously, Enver Solomon, CEO of Refugee Council, said: “Treating people who are in search of safety like human cargo and shipping them off to another country is a cruel policy that will cause great human suffering.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA Wire

“The scheme is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. The possibility of being sent off to Rwanda is causing huge distress to those we work with, including young people who are becoming extremely anxious and in some cases self-harming.”

He said the UK’s reputation “as a country that values human rights” will be damaged - and “our commitment to provide safety to those fleeing conflict and oppression, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention”, will be “undermined”.

Meanwhile, charities such as the British Red Cross have refuted the Home Office’s claims that the policy will succeed in stopping Channel crossings, arguing that “deterrence policies don’t work and will never solve the asylum seeker crisis” - and that ministers should instead invest in creating safe routes for asylum seekers and tackling the backlog in processing claims.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The asylum backlog is currently at record levels. Government figures show a total of 175,457 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application at the end of June, up 44% from 122,213 in June 2022. It’s the highest figure since current records began in 2010.

The number of asylum seekers waiting more than six months stood at 139,961 at the end of June, up 57% year on year from 89,231 and another record high. While Home Office spending on asylum has almost reached £4 billion, eight times the amount a decade ago.

Marley Morris, IPPR associate director for migration, trade and communities said: “Today’s ruling will send the government back to the drawing board as it wrestles with how to respond to the small boat crossings.

“While the government may do its best to resurrect the Rwanda plan or find deals elsewhere, there is little prospect of success in the short term. It may be lawful in principle to relocate people to third countries, but the Rwanda saga shows how hard it is to find a country which is both willing to accept large numbers of asylum seekers from the UK and which has a safe, well-functioning asylum system.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Now is the time for a serious, credible alternative to the Rwanda agreement. IPPR has put forward a three-point plan that focuses on safe routes to divert people away from dangerous Channel crossings, new deals with France and the EU on asylum, and reforms to our asylum system to get the backlog under control. It’s time for the government to adopt it.”

More to follow.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.