A legal challenge against the UK Government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda has begun.
But what is the challenge about, who are the asylum seekers at the centre of it and when will a decision be made? This is what you need to know.
What is the challenge about?
The challenge is being brought against a policy announced in April by outgoing Home Secretary Priti Patel, which she described as a “world-first agreement” with Rwanda in a bid to deter migrants from crossing the Channel.
However, the first deportation flight – due to take off on 14 June – was grounded amid a series of legal challenges.
Several asylum seekers, along with the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and groups Care4Calais and Detention Action, are bringing challenges over the plan to send some asylum seekers on one-way flights to the east African country.
What was said during the first day of the challenge?
Raza Husain QC, representing a number of those bringing the case, told the High Court on Monday: “Rwanda is in substance a one-party authoritarian state with extreme levels of surveillance that does not tolerate political opposition.”
Mr Husain told the court: “A safe third country that complies with the refugee convention … may achieve that compliance in a number of ways.
“It is no part of our case that the applicable standards upon which we apply require Rwanda to mirror precisely what we have in the UK.”
He later added: “A presumption of safety must be sufficiently supported at the outset.”
The barrister also said, in written arguments, that “neither the claimed economic benefit” of the policy, “nor its asserted efficacy as a deterrent, has any evidential foundation”.
Mr Husain said the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has raised a number of concerns about Rwanda’s record with refugees, including a high rate of rejection for asylum seekers who are not from neighbouring countries and issues with its process for determining refugee status – including a failure to provide reasons for refusal.
The Home Secretary is defending the claims, with lawyers arguing the policy is “not unlawful” and that the memorandum of understanding agreed between the UK and Rwanda provides assurances that ensure everyone sent there will have a “safe and effective” refugee status determination procedure.
The Home Secretary’s legal team, which includes Lord Pannick QC and Sir James Eadie QC, also argued there is no risk of those who are not granted refugee status in Rwanda being removed to their country of origin, adding in written arguments: “Rwanda does not conduct forcible removals to the countries of which these claimants are nationals.”
The Government’s lawyers added there was no risk of indirect “refoulement” – a term referring to refugees or asylum seekers being sent back to a country where they are likely to suffer bad treatment – as “the only country they could be returned to is the UK”.
“Arrangements have been made to ensure they are provided with suitable accommodation and support in Rwanda,” they added.
What’s been said previously?
During a previous hearing, the court was told Rwanda had initially been excluded from the shortlist of potential countries “on human rights grounds”.
Judges heard that in an internal note from March 2021, Foreign Office officials told then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab that if Rwanda was selected for the deportation policy “we would need to be prepared to constrain UK positions on Rwanda’s human rights record, and to absorb resulting criticism from UK Parliament and NGOs”.
In another memo, Foreign Office officials said they had advised Downing Street against engagement with several countries, including Rwanda, the court was told in written arguments.
The court also heard the UK High Commissioner to Rwanda previously indicated the east African country should not be used as an option for the policy, telling the Government it “has been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.
Another official memo in April this year said the “fraud risk is very high” and there is “limited evidence about whether these proposals will be a sufficient deterrent for those seeking to enter the UK illegally”, judges were told.
Were there protesters outside court?
A group of more than 50 demonstrators gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice to protest against the policy, with a small number of counter-protesters being kept separate from the larger group by police.
Representatives of three groups bringing the claim against the Government issued statements outside of court as the hearing began.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union’s general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “PCS has led this appeal because sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is not only immoral and unlawful – our members tell us it’s unworkable too. We want the Home Office to abandon its hostile approach to refugees and to work with us to build a humane system that allows our members the time, space and resources to do their jobs properly.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “When the Government attempted the flight in June we supported 121 people who had been issued Rwanda notices. We saw harrowing suicide attempts, self harm and over 20 people on hunger strike. We spoke to mothers, wives and children who begged us to help their loved ones. We supported people who had escaped from bloody conflicts and survived torture only to be detained and told the terrifying news that they would be deported half way across the world.
“It is sickening to contemplate this horror happening once more. Given the more effective and humane options available, is this really what we as a compassionate country want to do?”
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “The British courts have a fine tradition of guaranteeing fundamental rights and holding the executive to account when it over-reaches. We believe that the Government’s policy of expelling traumatised torture and trafficking survivors to an autocratic country thousands of miles away is unlawful, immoral and counterproductive.”
Who are the asylum seekers bringing the challenge?
Each “vulnerable” individual was told they would be removed to the east African country, their lawyers say.
Anonymised in court proceedings under three-letter acronyms, they were due on a flight to Rwanda on June 14 before it was grounded amid a series of legal challenges.
Court documents submitted for the five-day hearing on the challenge against the Government’s policy have revealed details of some of the individuals’ experiences.
AAA: This asylum seeker fled Syria last September to avoid being forced to join the YPG, a group controlling a north-eastern part of his country.
His journey across Europe saw him pass through Turkey, spend three days in the back of a lorry, stay for around seven months in a “jungle” in Dunkirk, before crossing to the UK on an inflatable boat.
He said he did not claim asylum in France because he was “scared” YPG supporters would find and kill him, his lawyers said.
AHA: Another Syrian asylum seeker who fled the war and military conscription in mid-2018, he allegedly experienced “negligence, mistreatment and violence” by Greek authorities and “detention, beatings and humiliation” by Turkish authorities.
He also said he was victim to “control by violent people smugglers” and has been separated from his family since fleeing Syria.
His lawyers say he has suffered “significant trauma from his experiences of the war in Syria, and has expressed suicidal thoughts”.
AT: A document submitted by his lawyers say this asylum seeker has a “history of political activism” and engaged in protests in Iran.
He fled political persecution there three months ago, with his mother arranging for people smugglers to take him “somewhere safe”, the Government said.
His journey to the UK saw him spend more than seven days in lorries and travelling in an inflatable boat.
NSK: This Iraqi asylum seeker spent days travelling by bus, lorries, a cargo train and van to Dunkirk in France, a Government document said, with him later crossing the Channel on a small boat.
His lawyers claim he “cannot read or write”, is a “victim of torture” and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
JM: From Albania, this asylum seeker has “experienced a series of traumatic events as a result of being trafficked to the UK”, his lawyers say.
On learning about Rwanda, he said he would “rather be dead than go there”.
When will a decision on the case be made?
The hearing is due to last for five days, with a second hearing in a claim brought by the group Asylum Aid taking place in October.
Decisions on both sets of claims are expected to be given in writing at the same time.