The British government has lost the legal battle over its controversial plan to send asylum seekers who have arrived in Rwanda illegally. The Supreme Court concludes that it is an illegal plan

High Court overturns UK government's intentions to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda

PHOTO/JUSTIN TALLIS vía AP - Rishi Sunak
PHOTO/JUSTIN TALLIS vía AP - Rishi Sunak

Five UK Supreme Court judges have unanimously ruled that, on the evidence, there is a clear risk that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda could be deported back to the countries they fled from. And although a higher court initially ruled that this was a legal plan, the NGOs went to the Court of Appeal, which eventually overturned the previous ruling and declared it illegal on the grounds that Rwanda is not a safe country to send irregular migrants to. It was then that Downing Street's legal services recommended that the government go to the Supreme Court, which is now responding with this setback. 

The Supreme Court's decision is a major setback for the Conservative government's immigration policy, as the so-called 'Rwanda Plan' devised by Boris Johnson was key to curbing the increase in irregular arrivals to Britain. But Rishi Sunak's failure is also likely to aggravate divisions in the Conservative Party, with a hardline wing on the warpath after the Home Secretary was sacked a few days ago. Shortly before the Supreme Court ruling, Suella Braverman accused Sunak in her farewell letter of reneging on his promises on the controversial deportations and even avoiding including clauses in the law that would allow for the circumvention of international human rights commitments.  

Sunak took the decision to sack Braverman after she accused the police of "double standards" and favouring pro-Palestinian protesters.  

PHOTO/POOL/AFP/TOBY MELVILLE - (De izq. a dcha.) El primer ministro británico Rishi Sunak, los ex primeros ministros británicos Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair y John Major asisten a la ceremonia del Domingo del Recuerdo en el Cenotafio de Whitehall, en el centro de Londres, el 12 de noviembre de 2023
PHOTO/POOL/AFP/TOBY MELVILLE - (L-R) British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, former British Prime Ministers Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, central London, on November 12, 2023

British premier won't throw in the towel and will table new treaty with Rwanda

The end justifies the means. Rishi Sunak's government's argument is that the aim of its migration plan is to put an end to the mafias operating in the English Channel, while the opposition sees it as "unviable", "immoral" and "unethical". In a communiqué, the British prime minister - who sees his immigration plan in danger - assures that he will do "everything possible to stop illegal immigration" and does not rule out taking new legal measures. "This was not the result we wanted, but we remain fully committed to stopping the boats," Sunak said. It should be remembered that, if the British government eventually loses the court battle, the hardline wing of the Conservative party could even ask to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which stopped the first plane carrying migrants bound for the African country last year. It was yet another setback for one of the most controversial measures of Boris Johnson's immigration policy.  

After the judicial setback, the UK is not giving up and has announced that it is already working on a new treaty with Rwanda, which it will make public in the coming days, and does not even rule out changing the country's laws so that it fits in and reviewing international relations so that flights can begin as soon as possible. In this sense, the British government has committed itself to providing the guarantees requested by the high court. "It is clear that our domestic legal frameworks or international conventions continue to frustrate the UK's plans," Rishi Sunak added, insisting in the House of Commons that the British people expect the Executive to do whatever is necessary to stop the boats once and for all, especially those small boats that arrive full of illegal migrants from France and across the English Channel.

The British premier has also declared that "illegal migration destroys lives, costs taxpayers millions of pounds every year" and advocates putting an end to it. The Conservative leader also assures that migrants will stop trying if the UK tightens its immigration policy as planned. And he has phoned Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, to tell him that the UK is committed to taking all the necessary measures to guarantee a "solid and legal" policy to stop the arrival of small boats as soon as possible. 

The move was intended to deter migrants from trying to reach the UK and to shorten the huge list of asylum seekers, which reached a new record in August 2023 with more than 175,000 applications made.

PHOTO/FILE - Paul Kagame
PHOTO/FILE - Paul Kagame

What is the agreement reached between the UK and Rwanda in Kigali? 

As the British Home Secretary, Priti Patel, explained in 2021, it is about "creating a mechanism for the relocation of asylum seekers in Rwanda, which will receive or expel people (depending on each case) after analysing their application". At the time of the signing of this agreement, back in 2022, Boris Johnson was keen to claim that this was a "ground-breaking measure made possible by the freedoms of Brexit". The agreement basically provides for Rwanda to receive around 144 million euros (120 million pounds) in exchange for migrants, with the possibility of increasing this figure depending on the number of people deported. The African country does not have to keep them as refugees, but can send the undocumented migrants back to their countries of origin, putting aside their status as asylum seekers. However, the British government always prefers to speak of "resettlement" and not "deportation". 

Human rights groups speak of a violation of rights

Numerous human rights organisations have been against the British government's plan from minute one, since this controversial migration plan was presented in 2022. They speak of a violation of the UK's obligations to ensure the rights of asylum seekers. Each deportation is a "mistake that could set a precedent" for the United Nations High Commissioner, Filipo Grandi. The UN is joined by organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which regrets that Rwanda "cannot be considered a safe third country" given the systematic reports of serious human rights violations. Or Amnesty International's UK director, Sacha Deshmukh, who has consistently dismissed the plan as "cruel", arguing that the only thing the people who could be expelled have done is apply for asylum in the UK. "A clear and shameful abandonment plan", says Amnesty International, in a country (Rwanda) with almost 514,000 immigrants, which represents 3.91% of the population. 

Opposition to the controversial Rwanda Plan has even reached the highest echelons of the Anglican Church, with some 20 bishops claiming that this immoral policy "shames Britain". 

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