Supreme Court Rwanda ruling: government plan to send asylum seekers to east Africa is ruled unlawful

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The government has been locked in a legal battle to send asylum seekers to Rwanda since the controversial policy was first announced in April 2022.

The government's controversial policy to send asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing and resettlement has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

This is a huge blow for Rishi Sunak, who has pinned his whole promise to "stop the boats" around this policy. More than 27,300 migrants have made unauthorised crossings of the English Channel already this year, official figures have showed. The government is likely to try and rework the plan to make it lawful, however it has already been delayed for more than 18 months.

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It comes after former Home Secretary Suella Braverman accused Sunak of betraying her and the British people over immigration in a bombshell letter, and said the Prime Minister had no 'Plan B'. She is expected to call for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) following the ruling.

After a lengthy legal battle, five justices ruled today (15 November) that it is not safe for migrants to be sent to the east African nation. Campaigners have argued that there's a risk asylum seekers will be sent back to their home countries from Rwanda, which is known as refoulement, where they're in danger.

The Supreme Court said there were "substantial grounds for believing asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of refoulement, the Court of Appeal concluded there were such grounds, we are unanimously of the view they were entitled to reach that conclusion".

Sunak is expected to address the ruling at Prime Minister's Questions at 12noon with new Home Secretary James Cleverly addressing the Commons at 12.30pm. The policy was first announced under Home Secretary Priti Patel in April 2022, with plans for the first flight to take off around the end of May that year. The Home Office paid £120 million up front for the partnership. However the first flight was grounded after a late ECHR ruling, and since then no flights have taken off. Braverman famously described sending asylum seekers to Rwanda as her "dream".

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Exhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty ImagesExhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images
Exhausted migrants in Kent. Credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images | AFP via Getty Images

In June, judges overturned a previous High Court ruling that said the nation in east Africa could be considered a “safe third country”. Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett said “deficiencies” in the asylum system in Rwanda mean there is a “real risk” that asylum seekers deported there would be “returned to their home countries”, where they could face “persecution” - even if they have a legitimate claim. That ruling led to today's Supreme Court judgement.

Refugee charities have long claimed that the policy not comply with the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, and puts asylum seekers in harm’s way. Speaking previously, Enver Solomon, CEO of Refugee Council, said: “Treating people who are in search of safety like human cargo and shipping them off to another country is a cruel policy that will cause great human suffering.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA WirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman. PIC: Phil Noble/PA Wire

“The scheme is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. The possibility of being sent off to Rwanda is causing huge distress to those we work with, including young people who are becoming extremely anxious and in some cases self-harming.”

He said the UK’s reputation “as a country that values human rights” will be damaged - and “our commitment to provide safety to those fleeing conflict and oppression, as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention”, will be “undermined”.

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Meanwhile, charities such as the British Red Cross have refuted the Home Office’s claims that the policy will succeed in stopping Channel crossings, arguing that “deterrence policies don’t work and will never solve the asylum seeker crisis” - and that ministers should instead invest in creating safe routes for asylum seekers and tackling the backlog in processing claims.

The asylum backlog is currently at record levels. Government figures show a total of 175,457 people were waiting for an initial decision on an asylum application at the end of June, up 44% from 122,213 in June 2022. It’s the highest figure since current records began in 2010.

The number of asylum seekers waiting more than six months stood at 139,961 at the end of June, up 57% year on year from 89,231 and another record high. While Home Office spending on asylum has almost reached £4 billion, eight times the amount a decade ago.

More to follow.

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