The United Kingdom's highest court has rejected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's key immigration policy which planned to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and was one of the Sunak government's top pledges.
Five justices of the top court ruled that asylum seekers would be “at real risk of ill-treatment” given that they could be sent back to their home countries after touching down in Rwanda.
While the British government has argued that the policy will act as a deterrent to migrants who risk their lives crossing the English channel, opposition politicians and rights groups, including refugee groups, have called the move unethical and unworkable.
Importantly, the Rwanda policy's most vocal supporter, former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, was sacked by PM Rishi Sunak on Monday, 13 November over a series of statements regarding the London Police's handling of pro-Palestine marches in the city. Braverman regularly made headlines for describing migrants as a "hurricane" heading for the UK and called homelessness a "lifestyle choice."
What is the Policy? How Did the Case Progress?
Robert Reed, the President of the UK's Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda cannot be relied upon to keep their promise and not illtreat asylum-seekers from Britain. Moreover, Reed cited Rwanda's poor human rights record, which includes torture, refoulement and enforced disappearances.
The controversial move first gained attention when the UK and Rwanda inked an agreement in April 2022 which aimed to send some migrants, who arrive in small boats across the the English Channel, to Rwanda, to process their asylum claims. If accepted, they would be allowed to stay in Rwanda itself, and cannot return to the UK.
The plan to send immigrants to Rwanda has faced legal challenges, preventing any deportations so far. In June 2022, the European Court of Human Rights halted the first deportation flight. While the High Court in London deemed the Rwanda plan legal in December, it mandated the government to assess each individual's circumstances before deportation.
In June, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of asylum-seekers, calling the plan unlawful as Rwanda is not a "safe third country," posing a risk of migrants being sent back to their home countries. The government appealed this at the Supreme Court, arguing a thorough risk assessment and assurance of Rwanda's commitment to protect migrants' rights.
As of November 12, 2023, a total of 27,284 individuals have crossed the English Channel, data from the UK's Home Office showed. In 2022, the highest number of migrants since 2018, totaling 45,755, made this crossing. Since 2018, over 100,000 people have arrived in the UK through this route.
When it comes to asylum seekers, more than 36,000 individuals sought asylum in the first half of 2023. In the entirety of 2022, over 89,000 people applied for asylum, with approximately 45% of these applications being attributed to small boat arrivals, the data showed.
The annual number of asylum applications, including dependants, reached around 103,000 in 2002, mainly due to conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. Subsequently, there was a significant decline, hitting a 20-year low of 22,600 in 2010. However, numbers began rising again in the 2010s, particularly driven by refugees escaping the conflict in Syria.
The Supreme Court's decision on Wednesday marks the end of British court proceedings, with the option for the losing side to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.
In her resignation letter on Tuesday, 14 November, Suella Braverman claimed that the government lacked a plan B due to the absence of "notwithstanding clauses" in the yet-to-be-implemented Illegal Migration Act.
If the government faces a defeat, ministers are likely to explore alternative solutions, such as negotiating a new agreement with Rwanda to address concerns raised by the supreme court judgment and any shortcomings in the current Rwandan scheme.
One approach could involve elevating the existing deal to treaty status, requiring parliamentary approval and potentially reducing the scope for court intervention.
Additionally, officials might consider expanding the list of countries covered by the Illegal Migration Act, deeming claims from their nationals automatically inadmissible and enabling swift deportations.