Social Justice

Government plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful, Supreme Court finds

The country's highest court has delivered its verdict on the government's plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda

rwanda

The first deportation flights to Rwanda were due to leave on 14 June 2022. Image: Greg Barradale / The Big Issue

The government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, in a judgement hailed as a “victory for humanity” by campaigners.

The ruling, from the highest court in the country, comes after the Home Office challenged a Court of Appeal ruling that the scheme was unlawful. This appeal has been dismissed.

Steve Smith, CEO of the charity Care4Calais, a claimant in the case, said: “The Supreme Court’s judgement is a victory for humanity. This grubby, cash-for-people deal was always cruel and immoral but, most importantly, it is unlawful.

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“Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on this cruel policy, and the only receipts the government has are the pain and torment inflicted on the thousands of survivors of war, torture and modern slavery they have targeted with it. The responsibility for the trauma, the incidences of self-harm, and the attempted suicides this policy has caused, today lies as a great weight on the shoulders of every government minister who has supported it.”

The defeat had been foreshadowed by former home secretary Suella Braverman, who said Rishi Sunak had engaged in “wishful thinking as a comfort blanket”, and that the government had wasted a year.

In a scathing public letter to Rishi Sunak, Braverman warned the government has “failed to prepare any sort of credible ‘plan B’.”

Braverman said seeing planes leave to Rwanda by Christmas 2022 was her “dream”. But despite the scheme being announced in April 2022, no migrants have been sent to the east African country amid legal disputes.

Under the scheme, asylum seekers arriving in the UK would be sent to Rwanda to have their claims processed and determined. If granted asylum, they would remain in Rwanda, a country the government argues is a “safe third country”.

But the government’s defeat is not the end of the fight, warned Aria Danaparamita, advocacy director at the Joint Council for Welfare of Immigrants.

“Our clients, many of whom were already traumatised from making their way to our shores, have lived in constant fear of being sent away to potential abuse, torture, even death. Forced resettlement, whether in Rwanda or elsewhere, is completely unacceptable,” said Danaparamita.

“We are aware that the government has contingency plans including the possibility of presenting the Rwanda plans as a treaty ratified by parliament or passing emergency legislation to sidestep our international human rights obligations. We believe that these moves are both immoral and unlawful, and will continue to fight against this government’s obscene scapegoating of people who move.”

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Concerns have consistently been raised over Rwanda’s human rights records, and the Court of Appeal found the scheme would contravene article three of the ECHR – which bans torture.

Evidence was cited that British police had been forced to warn Rwandan nationals living in the UK that the Rwandan government planned to kill them.

Widespread protests broke out ahead of the planned first flight in June 2022, which was cancelled at the last minute after an intervention from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

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The legal challenge initially failed at the High Court in December 2022, when the policy was ruled lawful. But a Court of Appeal ruling overturned this in June 2023, finding that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum seekers. The Supreme Court has now sided with the Court of Appeal.

James Wilson, director of Detention Action, said: “We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court and are deeply relieved that people seeking asylum here will not be handed over to an authoritarian regime.

“We are proud to have been one of the first claimants to bring this historic legal challenge, in solidarity with the thousands of people threatened with removal to Rwanda. We urge the new home secretary to abandon this policy altogether, rather than repeating this mistake by seeking a similar agreement with another country.”

The government has already given £140m to the Rwandan regime, and sees the scheme as key to its promise of stopping small boats crossings.

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