In a significant setback for the British prime minister, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court unanimously declared on Wednesday that the government’s contentious immigration policy is illegal.
The highest court in the country has halted Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship policy, which sought to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda for their claims to be processed by Rwandan authorities.
The court stated that there are substantial reasons to believe that asylum seekers would be at a genuine risk of ill-treatment if returned to their country of origin after being sent to Rwanda.
In response to the verdict, Sunak announced in a news conference on Wednesday evening that he would introduce emergency legislation to designate Rwanda as a safe country. He also expressed his determination not to allow foreign courts to impede the planned flights that the U.K. intends to use for transferring migrants to Rwanda.
The European Court of Human Rights prevented the first planned flight to Rwanda in June 2022, and no such flights have occurred since.
The British government has observed a rise in the number of migrants using small boats to cross the English Channel to the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Sunak has prioritized halting these crossings, using the campaign slogan “stop the boats.”
The government argued that the threat of deportation to Rwanda would dissuade migrants from attempting the journey. However, critics and lawmakers dispute the effectiveness of this approach, citing a lack of supporting evidence.
Currently, analysts and experts contend that the plan, for which the government has already paid Rwanda nearly $175 million, is in ruins. Eighteen months after the U.K. government introduced the Rwanda policy, and with a general election anticipated in about a year, the recent ruling by the country’s highest court has left the Sunak government with no legal avenues to salvage its once-signature immigration policy: criminalizing Channel crossings without a visa and threatening deportation to Rwanda for those making the journey, deemed unsafe.
In the long-awaited Supreme Court ruling announced on Wednesday, the court’s president, Robert Reed, emphasized a “real risk” that asylum-seekers might be returned from Rwanda to the locations they had escaped. He cited evidence from the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, demonstrating the shortcomings of a comparable deportation arrangement between Israel and Rwanda.
The court highlighted the nation’s obligations under national laws and international treaties to safeguard the rights of refugees.
Some hardliners within Sunak’s Conservative Party are advocating for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights, which formed the basis for blocking deportations to Rwanda last year. Reed’s conclusion that British laws would prohibit sending refugees to Rwanda implies that the policy would still be considered unlawful, even if the government were to exit the European Convention.
Pressure has mounted on Sunak from right-wing lawmakers within his Conservative Party to suspend human rights laws to implement the Rwanda policy, which was intended to address the small boats issue. Some Conservative Members of Parliament have even suggested the possibility of submitting letters of no confidence in the prime minister over his response to the ruling.
Refugee charities have praised the decision. Enver Solomon, CEO of the U.K.-based charity, the Refugee Council, characterized it as a “victory for the rights of men, women, and children who simply want to be safe.” Solomon highlighted the distress and trauma experienced by individuals fleeing conflict zones like Sudan and Syria, expressing relief that they would not be treated as “human cargo” bound for Rwanda.
Priti Patel, who has expressed her enthusiasm for deporting migrants to Rwanda and has referred to it as her “dream” and “obsession,” stated in her letter that Rishi Sunak lacked a “credible plan B” if the government faced defeat in the Supreme Court.