UK top court says a plan to send migrants to Rwanda is illegal. The government still wants to do it

The Supreme Court underlined the country’s poor human rights record, including enforced disappearances and torture, and said Rwanda sent migrants back to unsafe home countries

Rishi Sunak
Britain Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves his official residence at 10 Downing Street as he attends Prime Minister's Questions at Parliament in London, Britain, November 15 2023.NEIL HALL (EFE)

The British government said Wednesday it will still try to send some migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda, despite the U.K. Supreme Court ruling that the contentious plan is unlawful. In a major blow to one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s key policies, five justices on the country’s top court ruled unanimously that asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda would be “at real risk of ill-treatment” because they could be returned to the conflict-wracked home countries they’d fled.

Sunak, who has pledged to stop migrants reaching Britain in small boats across the English Channel, said the ruling “was not the outcome we wanted” but vowed to press on with the plan. He said the court had “confirmed that the principle of removing asylum-seekers to a safe third country is lawful,” even as it ruled Rwanda unsafe.

He said the government was working on a treaty with Rwanda that would address the court’s concerns, “and we will finalize that in light of today’s judgment.” If that fails, he said he was prepared to consider changing U.K. law and leaving international human rights treaties — a move that would draw strong opposition and international criticism.

Refugee and human rights groups welcomed the court’s decision and urged the government to drop the Rwanda plan. Charity ActionAid U.K. called it a vindication of “British values of compassion and dignity.” Amnesty International said the government should “draw a line under a disgraceful chapter in the U.K.’s political history.”

Britain and Rwanda signed a deal in April 2022 to send some migrants who arrive in the U.K. as stowaways or in boats to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay.

Britain’s government argued that the policy would deter people from risking their lives crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and would break the business model of people-smuggling gangs. Opposition politicians, refugee groups and human rights organizations said the plan was unethical and unworkable.

No one has yet been sent to the country as the plan was challenged in the courts. Reading the decision, President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed said Rwanda had a history of misunderstanding its obligations toward refugees and couldn’t be relied on to keep its promise not to mistreat asylum-seekers.

He cited the country’s poor human rights record, including enforced disappearances and torture, and said Rwanda practiced “refoulement” – sending migrants back to unsafe home countries.

The judges concluded there were “substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that asylum claims will not be determined properly, and that asylum-seekers will in consequence be at risk of being returned directly or indirectly to their country of origin.”

“In that event, genuine refugees will face a real risk of ill-treatment in circumstances where they should not have been returned at all,” they said.

The U.K. government has argued that while Rwanda was the site of a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in 1994, the country has since built a reputation for stability and economic progress.

Critics say that stability comes at the cost of political repression. The court’s judgment noted multiple rights breaches, including political killings that had led U.K. police “to warn Rwandan nationals living in Britain of credible plans to kill them on the part of that state.” They said Rwanda has a 100% rejection record for asylum-seekers from war-torn countries including Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The Rwandan government insisted the country was a safe place for refugees. “Rwanda is committed to its international obligations,” government spokesperson Yolande Makolo wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We have been recognized by the UNHCR and other international institutions for our exemplary treatment of refugees.”

Rwandan opposition leader Frank Habineza said Britain shouldn’t try to offshore its migration obligations to the small African country. “The U.K. should keep the migrants or send them to another European country, not to a poor country like Rwanda. I really think it’s not right (for) a country like U.K. to run away from their obligations,” Habineza told the AP in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.

The Rwanda plan has cost the British government at least 140 million pounds ($175 million) in payments to Rwanda before a single plane has taken off. The first deportation flight was stopped at the last minute in June 2022, when the European Court of Human Rights intervened.

The case went to the High Court and the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the plan was unlawful because Rwanda is not a “safe third country.” The government unsuccessfully challenged that decision at the Supreme Court.

Sunak took comfort from the court’s ruling that “the structural changes and capacity-building needed” to make Rwanda safe “may be delivered in the future.”

The prime minister is under pressure from the right wing of the governing Conservative Party to take dramatic action to “stop the boats.” Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who was fired by Sunak on Monday, has said the U.K. should leave the European Convention on Human Rights if the Rwanda plan was blocked.

Sunak told lawmakers in the House of Commons that he was “prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships” if other routes failed.

Much of Europe and the U.S. is struggling with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.

Though Britain receives fewer asylum applications than countries such as Italy, France or Germany, thousands of migrants from around the world travel to northern France each year in hopes of crossing the English Channel.

More than 27,300 migrants have crossed the Channel this year, with the year’s total on track to be fewer than the 46,000 who made the journey in 2022. The government says that shows its tough approach is working, though others cite factors including the weather.

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