U.K. Supreme Court says Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda deportation policy is unlawful

The Supreme Court made it clear that it had made a legal decision, not a political one, and that the Rwanda policy, if currently executed, would run afoul of the European Convention on Human Rights

Updated - November 15, 2023 07:36 pm IST

Published - November 15, 2023 07:08 pm IST - LONDON

A view of the entrance of the Supreme Court in London, on November 15, 2023.

A view of the entrance of the Supreme Court in London, on November 15, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

In a big blow to the Rishi Sunak government, the U.K. Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the government’s proposed policy to send certain asylum seekers to Rwanda while their cases are processed is unlawful. The Supreme Court concurred with a Court of Appeal decision from June this year, and said that there were sufficient grounds to believe that ‘refoulment’ could occur, i.e., genuine refugees could be returned to their countries of origin and unsafe circumstances.

U.K Supreme Court’s President Justice Robert Reed said that “there were substantial grounds for believing that a real risk of refoulment existed” and that there were “serious and systematic defects” in Rwanda’s asylum claims processing. The Rwandan system may, in the future, be able to deliver the changes required to address this risk, Justice Reed said, adding, however, that those changes were not in place now.

Also read: Explained | What is the new U.K. policy on refugees? 

The ruling is also a blow — the second this week — to former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, herself the child of Indian-origin migrants from Africa. Ms. Braverman, who was fired by Mr Sunak on Monday had said in October 2022 that it was her “dream” and “obsession” to see a flight take off for Rwanda. However, the first flight in June 2022 did not take off, after the European Court of Human Rights intervened stopping seven individuals from being deported.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court made it clear that it had made a legal decision, not a political one, and that the Rwanda policy, if currently executed, would run afoul of the European Convention on Human Rights (which is valid in the U.K.) as well as several United Nations treaty.

Cracking down on illegal migration and bringing down net migration numbers has been one of the core policies of successive Conservative Prime Ministers. The Rwanda plan was conceived by former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, largely to tackle migrants arriving across the English Channel in “small boats”. The government had paid the Rwandan government £140m for the scheme.

Once they had been sent to Rwanda, the asylum seekers could return to their home countries, stay in Rwanda, or apply for asylum in another country (not the U.K.). Significantly, the government is in the process of adding India to a “safe country” list to facilitate the removal of its citizens who arrive illegally. A total of 683 Indians arrived in the U.K. via illegal Channel crossings in 2022 and Indian citizens were the third largest group of asylum seekers in the U.K. as per data from the first half of this year.

Responding to the verdict , Mr Sunak said that the government had been “planning for all eventualities” and was  “completely committed to stopping the boats”. He said the court had confirmed that it was not, per se, unlawful to send illegal migrants to a safe third country, suggesting that the government could come up with a country other than Rwanda to send asylum seekers to.

“If necessary, I am prepared to revisit our domestic legal frameworks,” Mr Sunak tweeted.

“The British people deserve a serious government with serious plans to fix the broken asylum system,” Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said. “My Labour government will stop squandering taxpayer’s money and deliver the secure borders our country needs,” he added.

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