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In context: The UK Government’s Rwanda policy

Protestors outside the Supreme Court in London | Alamy

In context: The UK Government’s Rwanda policy

The Supreme Court has ruled that the UK Government’s Rwanda migration policy is unlawful, but with the prime minister determined to salvage the plan, where does his government go from here?

What is the Rwanda plan?

Introduced by then prime minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, the intention of the policy was to send asylum seekers – mainly single men arriving on small boats or lorries – to Rwanda for their applications to be processed. To facilitate the plan the UK Government established a Migration and Economic Development Partnership that named Rwanda as a safe third country. It also paid the Rwandan government £120m.

Those selected for the programme, which was intended as an initial five-year pilot, would have been required to seek asylum in Rwanda and, if it was granted, would have had to remain there. They would have had no right to then come to the UK.

The plan was intended as a solution to the so-called small-boats crisis after 28,526 people arrived via that route in 2021. Then home secretary Priti Patel said it would “set a new international standard” while Johnson claimed it would “save countless lives” from human trafficking. A record 45,700 asylum seekers crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2022.

Did the government actually send anyone to Rwanda?

No. In May last year Johnson said that 50 people had been given notice that they would be transferred to Rwanda and in June the Daily Mail reported that 130 people had been selected for the first removal flight to Kigali. However, a range of organisations including Care4Calais and Asylum Aid submitted legal challenges on behalf of those due to board the flight, claiming variously that Rwanda could not be classed a safe country and that the plan was in breach of the UK’s Human Rights Act.

Although both the High Court and Court of Appeal said the flight could go ahead, the European Court of Human Rights granted a last-minute injunction on behalf of an Iraqi national, effectively grounding it. A later appeal court ruling found the government’s plan to be unlawful on the basis that Rwanda is not a safe third country and anyone being sent there would be at risk of being returned to their country of origin. No flights were able to take off as a result.

What was the Supreme Court case about?

The home secretary challenged the Court of Appeal’s decision on the legality of the scheme, but a bench of five Supreme Court justices dismissed that case earlier this month. In their leading judgment, Supreme Court president Lord Reed and justice Lord Lloyd-Jones said the government’s case failed because it breaches “several international treaties ratified by the UK” on refoulment – the forceable return of asylum seekers to a country where they are likely to be persecuted. 

So that’s the end of that then?

It would certainly appear that way. The government of Rwanda railed against the court’s ruling, saying Rwanda is “one of the safest countries in the world” and that it “remains fully committed to making this partnership work”. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, said he remains committed to the Johnson plan, writing on social media platform X that the government “has been working on a new treaty with Rwanda” that it will finalise “in light of [the Supreme Court] judgment”.

However, in a column for The Times newspaper legal expert Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, said this is highly unlikely. “The court’s judgment does not torpedo the Rwanda policy entirely, though it does make it extremely unlikely that anyone will be sent to Rwanda, or anywhere else similar, before the next election,” he wrote. “That is because the Supreme Court accepted the evidence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that there were ‘serious and systemic defects’ in the Rwandan asylum system, and that these could not straightforwardly be fixed.”

When she was sacked by Sunak days before the Supreme Court judgment was delivered, former home secretary Suella Braverman wrote an irate letter in which she suggested the plan could go ahead if Sunak was willing to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international treaty distinct from the EU that the UK ratified in 1951 and enshrined into law in the 1998 Human Rights Act.

Sunak has indicated that he wants to bring forward legislation that would require judges to ignore the convention in asylum cases and immigration minister Robert Jenrick is pushing for emergency laws that would give that effect. However, while members of his cabinet, including justice secretary Alex Chalk, are said to be opposed to the plan, the Supreme Court ruling indicated that it would have little effect as the Rwanda policy breaches international law, something that is not within the UK Government’s gift to alter. 

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