U.K. Top Court Rules Plan to Deport Asylum Seekers to Rwanda Is Unlawful

A protester stands outside the Supreme Court in London, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON (The Washington Post) — Britain’s top court on Wednesday unanimously ruled against the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda — a goal sought by successive British prime ministers and watched by other countries hoping to outsource migration issues while skirting international human-rights obligations.

The ruling brings some sense of relief to asylum seekers already in Britain who have received threatening letters from the government. It is also a huge embarrassment for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, leaving his flagship effort to “stop the boats” in tatters, ahead of what is expected to be a difficult election year.

The court found that “there are substantial grounds for believing that the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill-treatment,” namely that asylum seekers could from there be returned to their country of origin, where they could face persecution.

The court cited both domestic legislation and international conventions that protect refugees from “refoulement” — being returned to countries where their life or freedom is threatened.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Sunak said it was “not the outcome we wanted,” but vowed to continue to seek a way to deport asylum seekers. He said his government was working on an agreement with Rwanda that would be “finalized in light of today’s judgment.” He said he was also prepared to change domestic laws and reconsider international conventions. “The British people expect us to do whatever it takes to stop the boats.”

Sunak went further at a news conference Wednesday evening, saying his government would introduce “emergency legislation” that would deem Rwanda a safe country and “end the merry-go-round” of legal challenges. He added that he would “not allow a foreign court to block these flights,” an allusion to the European Court of Human Rights, which forced the cancellation of a planned deportation flight to Rwanda last year.

Sunak did not detail what his proposed legislation would say. It could still face pushback from lawmakers, as well as legal challenges at the policy level and in regard to individual deportation orders.

“I remain skeptical that anyone is getting on a plane to Rwanda,” said immigration lawyer Sonia Lenegan.

Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the “Court exposed complete failure of Sunak’s flagship policy & his judgement. PM knew problems w scheme yet still gave Rwanda £140m, still made it centre of his plan, still had no proper plan to go after criminal gangs to stop boat crossings instead.”

Sunak made “stopping the boats” a central promise, with the Rwanda deportation plan the key element. Last year, more than 45,000 people crossed the English Channel from mainland Europe, often in flimsy, unseaworthy vessels. Those numbers are aggravating to Britons who backed Brexit so their country could “take back control” of its borders.

The Illegal Migration Act signed into law this year seeks to prevent people entering Britain via unofficial means from applying for asylum here. The law places a legal duty on officials to detain and deport people back to their birth country, if that’s possible, or to a “safe third country,” including Rwanda, where their asylum claims can be processed. Once relocated, asylum seekers would be barred from ever entering Britain again.

On Wednesday, James Cleverly, Britain’s new home secretary, noted that other European countries were also “exploring third-country models for illegal migration.” He cited Austria, Germany, Denmark and Italy.

But Britain’s plan is more extreme than what other European governments have so far tried to do. The closest approximation may be Australia’s mandatory detention and offshoring.

The United Nations previously said that the British policy was at odds with international law and set “a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations that other countries, including in Europe, may be tempted to follow.”

Wednesday’s ruling immediately fueled debate within Sunak’s Conservative Party about whether Britain should withdraw, fully or partially, from the European Convention on Human Rights — a treaty the country helped draft and was among the first to ratify.

Lee Anderson, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, declared it a “dark day for the British people” and recommended that the government “just put the planes in the air now and send them to Rwanda.”

Sunak and Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke on the phone after the ruling and reiterated their commitment to make their migration partnership work, a spokesman for Sunak’s office said.

Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo separately told reporters, “We take issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum seekers and refugees.”

Lenegan, the immigration lawyer, said Wednesday’s ruling, while a loss for the government, may actually be what some officials wanted. “If they won, they have to actually implement legislation they passed,” she said. “But Rwanda will be at capacity after accepting a few hundred people. It’s hard to remove people when you have nowhere to remove them to.”

By losing the case, she said, “they will have someone else to blame for the fact they can’t make legislation work and the fact the boats aren’t stopping. They can blame the Supreme Court, they can blame lawyers. They can blame someone other than themselves.”

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