UK government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda ruled unlawful by Court of Appeal

Judges overturned a ruling which previously said Rwanda could be considered a “safe third country”
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Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful by the UK’s Court of Appeal.

In a hearing in London on Thursday (29 June), judges overturned a previous High Court ruling that said the nation in east Africa could be considered a “safe third country”.

The Court of Appeal’s decision was announced by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett, who 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.

Reacting to the ruling, Prime Minister Sunak said he “fundamentally disagrees” with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion - and confirmed the government will seek to appeal with the Supreme Court. In the meantime, flights to the country’s capital Kigali will remain suspended.

He commented: “I strongly believe Rwanda’s government has provided the assurances necessary to ensure there is no real risk that asylum seekers relocated under the Rwanda policy would be wrongly returned to third countries. The policy of this government is very simple, it is this country – and your government – who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs. And I will do whatever is necessary to make that happen.”

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful by the UK’s Court of Appeal. Credit: Tom Pilgrim/PA WireRishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful by the UK’s Court of Appeal. Credit: Tom Pilgrim/PA Wire
Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful by the UK’s Court of Appeal. Credit: Tom Pilgrim/PA Wire

Meanwhile, Braverman added: “The British people want to stop the boats, and so does this government. That’s what I am determined to deliver and I won’t take a backward step from that. We need innovative solutions to smash the business model of the people smuggling gangs, which is why we formed this partnership with Rwanda.

“The Court of Appeal have been clear that the policy of relocating asylum seekers to a safe third country for the processing of their claims is in line with the Refugee Convention. While we are disappointed with their ruling in relation to Rwanda’s asylum system, I will be seeking permission to appeal this.”

This is the latest court verdict in the government’s long-running legal battle to get its controversial scheme up and running. The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was first announced in April 2022, forming part of a Conservative Party pledge to crack down on the number of migrants crossing the Channel.

Later, in December 2022, two High Court judges dismissed a series of legal bids against the deportation policy - ruling that it complied with the government’s obligations under human rights law. However, just a month later, in January 2023, the court granted an appeal against its own judgement - giving campaigners the chance to challenge the controversial decision.

And on Thursday (29 June), Lord Burnett announced that campaigners had won their appeal. He said: “The result is that the High Court’s decision that Rwanda was a safe third country is reversed... Unless and until the deficiencies in its asylum processes are corrected, removal of asylum-seekers to Rwanda will be unlawful.”

The result was a split decision - two judges against one - with Lord Burnett saying he had felt “assurances” given by the government in Rwanda were “sufficient” to ensure there was “no real risk” of asylum seekers being returned to countries where they could face harm.

But Sir Geoffrey Vos and Lord Justice Underhill disagreed, concluding that the country’s system for making decisions on asylum seeker claims was “inadequate” - and that there was no evidence the “necessary changes” had taken place.

Following the ruling, Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson for the government of Rwanda, said it “takes issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees”. She continued: “Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership work. When the migrants do arrive, we will welcome them and provide them with the support they’ll need to build new lives in Rwanda.”

The plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been controversial since it was first announced, with refugee charities warning that the policy breaches human rights legislation, does not comply with the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, and puts asylum seekers in harm’s way.

Speaking previously about the policy, 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.

“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 also warned that if the government pushes ahead with the policy, 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.

Screen grab taken from PA Video of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett during a live broadcast from the Court of Appeal in London, ruling that government plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda are unlawful. Credit: Cameras in Court/PA WireScreen grab taken from PA Video of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett during a live broadcast from the Court of Appeal in London, ruling that government plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda are unlawful. Credit: Cameras in Court/PA Wire
Screen grab taken from PA Video of the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett during a live broadcast from the Court of Appeal in London, ruling that government plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda are unlawful. Credit: Cameras in Court/PA Wire

Amongst those in the political sphere who have already reacted to the news are Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who said the ruling “shows that Rishi Sunak has no plan to fix the Tories’ small boats chaos and his only idea is completely unravelling.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said in a statement: “Not only is the Conservatives’ Rwanda asylum plan immoral, ineffective and incredibly costly for taxpayers, but the Court of Appeal has also now said it is unlawful, too.”

He then urged Braverman to “accept reality” over the plan, telling her to “scrap her vanity project” and stop “wasting even more taxpayer money”.

However, the government has continued to insist that the deportation plan is necessary to tackle the asylum crisis - with the Home Secretary arguing that Rwanda is a “safe country” for refugees.

Just a few days ago, Braverman urged MPs to back her Illegal Migration Bill - which pushes for asylum seekers to be sent to Rwanda - stating: “We cannot allow a system to continue which incentivises people to risk their lives and pay people-smugglers to come to this country illegally, while placing an unacceptable strain on the UK taxpayer.”

Her comments came after a long-awaited economic impact assessment of the proposed legislation revealed that every asylum seeker forcibly removed to a third country such as Rwanda could cost the taxpayer nearly £170,000, according to the government’s own estimates.

More to follow.

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