Rwanda asylum plan unlawful, Supreme Court rules

The government’s controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is in tatters after top judges concluded the policy is unlawful.

The UK signed a £140 million deal with the east African nation in April 2022, and attempted to shrug off human rights concerns by insisting that “Rwanda is a safe country”.

But Supreme Court justices ruled on Wednesday the policy is unlawful due to serious deficiencies in Rwanda's asylum system.

The ruling is a major blow to Rishi Sunak’s hopes of achieving his pledge to “Stop the Boats”, and comes less than 24 hours after former Home Secretary Suella Braverman – who had championed the Rwanda plan – launched a blistering attack on the PM and accused him of failing to draw up a Plan B.

The policy had been intended to deter the tens of thousands of people who cross the English Channel to the UK each year in small boats, as they would have faced instant deportation to Rwanda where any asylum claim would be processed.

But judges found that genuine refugees would be at risk of being unlawfully shipped from Rwanda back to their home countries, possibly to face the persecution and torture they had been fleeing in the first place.

Delivering the ruling, Supreme Court president Lord Reed listed a series of flaws in the Rwanda asylum system, including 100 examples where refugees were wrongly deported back to their home countries – known as refoulement.

“We accept the Home Secretary’s submission that the Rwandan government entered into the agreement in good faith, and that the capacity of the Rwandan system to produce accurate and fair decisions can and will be built up”, he said.

“Nevertheless, asking ourselves whether there were substantial grounds for believing that a real risk of refoulement existed at the relevant time, we have concluded that there were.

“The changes needed to eliminate the risk of refoulement may be delivered in the future, but they have not been shown to be in place now.”

The judges also highlighted that the UK had criticised the Rwandan government in 2021 over unlawful killings, deaths in custody, disappearances, and torture, and the country has a track record of rejecting asylum claims without any reaching its Court of Appeal.

Nearly 46,000 people made the perillous boat journey across the Channel last year, and with the Rwanda plan seemingly dead Sunak and new Home Secretary James Cleverly now face a demand for fresh ideas to tackle a problem likely to feature heavily in the upcoming General Election campaign.

The defeat in the Supreme Court brings to an end a year-and-a-half-long legal war that began with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Priti Patel as Home Secretary.

The first flight to Rwanda was blocked at the 11th hour last June following an intervention by the European courts, and Johnson then threatened to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

High Court judges concluded the deportation plan was lawful, but that decision was overturned in the Court of Appeal.

Braverman – who had spoken of her “dream” of seeing flights loaded with asylum seekers taking off for Rwanda - was forced out of the Home Office in Monday’s cabinet reshuffle.

In a letter published on Tuesday, she accused the Prime Minister of “betrayal”, alleged that key policy promises had been broken, and wrote at length about private conversations around immigration policy and international law obligations.

Braverman said she had repeatedly warned that the government could face defeat in the Supreme Court, and accused the PM of “wasting” the last year without drawing up an alternative immigration policy.

“Your 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”, she wrote.

“I can only surmise that this is because you have no appetite for doing what is necessary, and therefore no real intention of fulfilling your pledge to the British people.”

Lawyers for asylum seekers from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Sudan and Albania led the legal challenge against the Rwanda policy, and highlighted internal government warnings that the African nation does not have a safe system for processing claims.

They argued that Rwanda does not have enough judges to deal with asylum appeals and the court system is not separate from the government.

Particular attention was also paid to the fatal shooting in 2018 of 12 refugees by police in western Rwanda as they protested outside a UN office.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) intervened in the case to say safeguards written into the original deal were not sufficient to address “basic and fundamental defects” in the Rwandan system.

It was highlighted that a similar deal between Rwanda and Israel had been in operation between 2013 and 2018, and there was evidence of the African nation failing to meet the undertakings it had given to treat asylum seekers fairly.Lords Reed, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Briggs and Sales oversaw the Supreme Court challenge and delivered their ruling on Wednesday morning.