Britain’s controversial plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court Wednesday, dealing a potentially fatal blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy on migration and setting up an anticipated revolt from the right wing of his Conservative party.
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 – which unambiguously dismantled the government’s appeal – 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.
The ruling is expected to lead 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 left and right in Britain’s ruling party.
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.
“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,” they wrote in their judgment.
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.
Sunak said on Wednesday: “This 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.”
He said the government will “now consider next steps.” Sunak may attempt to renegotiate a deal with Rwanda or another country, but those talks would be expected to be painstaking and subject to further legal scrutiny.
More immediately, Sunak must work to navigate the battle within the Conservative Party that has been brewing for months and is expected to erupt 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.
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.
In a scathing letter to Sunak on Tuesday after her sacking, Braverman 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.
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.”
But some in the party may push to keep alive the goal of offshoring the processing of asylum claims, whether with Rwanda or another country.
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.
“Ministers knew about the weaknesses in this scheme from the start and yet they insisted on making it their flagship policy,” Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said in a statement on Wednesday.
“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,” Cooper said.