Rwanda is an “authoritarian state” that “tortures and murders those it considers to be its opponents”, the High Court has heard at the outset of a legal challenge against the UK Government’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to the east African country.
Raza Husain QC, representing a number of those bringing the case against Home Secretary Priti Patel, told the court on Monday: “Rwanda is in substance a one-party authoritarian state with extreme levels of surveillance that does not tolerate political opposition.”
The challenge is being brought against a policy announced by the Home Secretary in April, which she described as a “world-first agreement” with Rwanda in a bid to deter migrants from crossing the Channel.
However, the first deportation flight – due to take off on June 14 – was grounded amid a series of legal challenges.
Several asylum seekers, along with the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) and groups Care4Calais and Detention Action, are bringing challenges over the plan to send some asylum seekers on one-way flights to the east African country.
Arrangements have been made to ensure they are provided with suitable accommodation and support in Rwanda
Mr Husain told the court: “A safe third country that complies with the refugee convention … may achieve that compliance in a number of ways.
“It is no part of our case that the applicable standards upon which we apply require Rwanda to mirror precisely what we have in the UK.”
He later added: “A presumption of safety must be sufficiently supported at the outset.”
The barrister also said, in written arguments, that “neither the claimed economic benefit” of the policy, “nor its asserted efficacy as a deterrent, has any evidential foundation”.
Mr Husain said the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has raised a number of concerns about Rwanda’s record with refugees, including a high rate of rejection for asylum seekers who are not from neighbouring countries and issues with its process for determining refugee status – including a failure to provide reasons for refusal.
The Home Secretary is defending the claims, with lawyers arguing the policy is “not unlawful” and that the memorandum of understanding agreed between the UK and Rwanda provides assurances that ensure everyone sent there will have a “safe and effective” refugee status determination procedure.
The Home Secretary’s legal team, which includes Lord Pannick QC and Sir James Eadie QC, also argued there is no risk of those who are not granted refugee status in Rwanda being removed to their country of origin, adding in written arguments: “Rwanda does not conduct forcible removals to the countries of which these claimants are nationals.”
The Government’s lawyers added there was no risk of indirect “refoulement” – a term referring to refugees or asylum seekers being sent back to a country where they are likely to suffer bad treatment – as “the only country they could be returned to is the UK”.
“Arrangements have been made to ensure they are provided with suitable accommodation and support in Rwanda,” they added.
During a previous hearing, the court was told Rwanda had initially been excluded from the shortlist of potential countries “on human rights grounds”.
Judges heard that in an internal note from March 2021, Foreign Office officials told then-foreign secretary Dominic Raab that if Rwanda was selected for the deportation policy “we would need to be prepared to constrain UK positions on Rwanda’s human rights record, and to absorb resulting criticism from UK Parliament and NGOs”.
In another memo, Foreign Office officials said they had advised Downing Street against engagement with several countries, including Rwanda, the court was told in written arguments.
The court also heard the UK High Commissioner to Rwanda previously indicated the east African country should not be used as an option for the policy, telling the Government it “has been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.
Another official memo in April this year said the “fraud risk is very high” and there is “limited evidence about whether these proposals will be a sufficient deterrent for those seeking to enter the UK illegally”, judges were told.
We want the Home Office to abandon its hostile approach to refugees and to work with us to build a humane system that allows our members the time, space and resources to do their jobs properly
Mark Serwotka, PCS
A group of more than 50 demonstrators gathered outside the Royal Courts of Justice to protest against the policy, with a small number of counter-protesters being kept separate from the larger group by police.
Representatives of three groups bringing the claim against the Government issued statements outside of court as the hearing began.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union’s general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “PCS has led this appeal because sending asylum seekers to Rwanda is not only immoral and unlawful – our members tell us it’s unworkable too. We want the Home Office to abandon its hostile approach to refugees and to work with us to build a humane system that allows our members the time, space and resources to do their jobs properly.”
Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais, said: “When the Government attempted the flight in June we supported 121 people who had been issued Rwanda notices. We saw harrowing suicide attempts, self harm and over 20 people on hunger strike. We spoke to mothers, wives and children who begged us to help their loved ones. We supported people who had escaped from bloody conflicts and survived torture only to be detained and told the terrifying news that they would be deported half way across the world.
“It is sickening to contemplate this horror happening once more. Given the more effective and humane options available, is this really what we as a compassionate country want to do?”
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “The British courts have a fine tradition of guaranteeing fundamental rights and holding the executive to account when it over-reaches. We believe that the Government’s policy of expelling traumatised torture and trafficking survivors to an autocratic country thousands of miles away is unlawful, immoral and counterproductive. We are going to court today to test the lawfulness of the policy on behalf of our clients and hundreds of others liable to forced expulsion.”
The hearing is due to last for five days, with a second hearing in a claim brought by the group Asylum Aid taking place in October.
Decisions on both sets of claims are expected to be given in writing at the same time.