The recent ruling in the United Kingdom Supreme Court presents new challenges for the Conservative government and their promised immigration policy. On 15 November 2023 the Supreme Court ruled against the Conservative party’s Rwanda plan, putting Prime Minister Sunak and his constituents are in a contentious position.
The U.K.’s immigration policy has been at the forefront of party politics. A major impetus for Brexit was to end the free movement of people and take back control of the country’s borders. Despite these promises, the Conservative party has failed to meet their immigration goal of cutting net migration to under 100,000 people annually. Reuters reports that net migration has continued to rise since Brexit hitting a record of 606,000 in 2022. This has been partly due to new visa routes for arrivals from Ukraine and Hong Kong. Party leaders acknowledge the need for a new and innovative immigration plan, that is where the Rwanda plan came in.
The Rwanda migrant deportation plan was struck in April 2022 by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The plan was designed to deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous 20 mile journey across the channel from Europe to Britain. These journeys are often taken by refugees on small dinghy boats, unfit and unsafe for the task at hand. Under the plan, anyone who arrived in Britain illegally after 1 January 2022 faced deportation to Rwanda, 4,000 miles away, where their claims for asylum would be assessed. Mr. Sunak promised to champion the plan in his campaign for Conservative Party leadership last year. The U.K. government has already put the plan in motion, paying Rwanda at least 140 million pounds as part of the agreement. Suella Braverman, the previous home secretary, who was fired earlier this month, offered unwavering support for the plan. She stated that it was “her dream” to see asylum seekers sent to Rwanda, arguing that “Britain should be prepared to overhaul or even leave the European Convention to make it happen”.
The plan has faced significant legal challenges. Asylum seekers initially challenged the legal standing of the aforementioned Rwandan policy last December. Britain’s High Court ruled in favour of the government determining that the Rwandan plan was lawful in principle. In June of 2023, the Court of Appeals overturned the initial judgement, deeming that Rwanda was not a safe third country. The court cited the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR)’s expert assessment of the transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda. In the assessment UNHCR cited evidence that a similar policy by Israel had failed to protect asylum seekers from refoulement. The court agreed that this assessment should have been taken into account by the lower court in its initial decision. Justice Reed, a judge in the court, stated that the failure to take this assessment into account “was a mistake”. Through this line of reasoning, the Court of Appeals (CoA) ruled that it was entitled to interfere in the divisional court’s conclusion and affirmed that Rwanda was not safe for refugees. The U.K. government appealed against this ruling, bringing it to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruling that took place 15 November 2023 upheld the CoA ruling. The court’s reasoning hinged on a two-pronged legal explanation. The first being that asylum seekers who had their claims heard in Rwanda could face “refoulement”, violating multiple international and British legal commitments. Additionally, they argued that deportees could face a ‘real risk’ of ill-treatment contrary to their human rights. The legal principle of non-refoulement, the assertion that legitimate refugees should not be returned back to their country of origin when they are seeking asylum, is outlined in the United Nations Refugee Convention, the UN Convention Against Torture, and other international treaties that Briatin has ratified. As such, the U.K. is largely bound, through international treaties and national law, to ensure their immigration policy promotes non-refoulement.
The Supreme Court ruled that the Rwanda plan did not fit in line with the non-refoulement policy, stating that the Rwandan asylum system created a ‘real risk of refoulement’. The Judgment cited the UNHCR report that highlighted the high risk of refoulement when sending refugees to Rwanda. As well as explaining that Rwanda had ‘little to no experience’ of considering asylum claimants in the U.K. who commonly come from countries, such as Albania, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Vietnam. Thus with past evidence pointing to Rwanda’s tendency to force asylum seekers back to their origin country, as well as the country’s limited experience in dealing with refugees, especially in the capacity from which they would be sent from the U.K., the court ruled that the plan was not in line with the U.K.'s commitment to non-refoulement. Moreover, the court upheld the initial CoA ruling that hinged on the issue of safety. The judgement argued that the risk of asylum claimants being retired to their country of origin where they could face inhumane treatment violated the commitments the U.K. made in the European Court of Human Rights.
The reaction to this ruling has varied. The Conservative parties seem to view this as a set-back, rather than a deadly blow to their immigration plan. After the ruling, Mr. Sunak addressed Parliament. He stated that the government was already working on a new treaty with Rwanda. This new treaty would include a “legally binding commitment from the country to not remove asylum seekers sent there by Britain''. He also promised new emergency legislation that would declare Rwanda a safe country for asylum seekers, overriding the court’s judgement that it was not. He stated that he “will not allow a foreign court, like the European Court of Human Rights to block these fights”.
Those in the Labour party hold a different view for the future of the Rwandan plan. Yvette Cooper, the opposition Labour Party lawmaker responsible for home affairs, expressed concern over Sunak’s continuing pursuant of the plan. She urged focus to shift towards dealing with the asylum applications piling up in Britain. The party also criticised the Conservative government for spending tens of millions on the Rwanda agreement, Copper stating “money we can’t get back now that this policy has totally failed.”
The future of the Rwanda policy, and the U.K.’s general immigration policy remains uncertain. The government’s inability to establish a clear immigration policy and deliver on post-Brexit promises continues to increase tensions between the Conservative government and U.K. citizens.