Britain’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful, dealing a major blow to a Conservative government that has long described the plan as central to its pledge to stop small boat arrivals.
Justice Robert Reed, one of five judges who heard the case, said the court supported an earlier Court of Appeal decision that found Rwanda to be not safe for refugees, saying bluntly, “We agree with their conclusion.” He emphasized that the plan would breach multiple laws, both British and international.
The court’s unanimous rejection of the government’s flagship immigration policy is the latest setback for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a time of intense political turmoil in the Conservative Party, which has held power for 13 years and is lagging in the polls.
The Rwanda plan was first announced in April 2022 by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he attempted to make good on a Brexit campaign promise to “take back control” of Britain’s borders. Mr. Sunak promised to champion the policy in his campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, and the Conservative government has already paid Rwanda at least 140 million pounds, or almost $175 million, as part of the deal.
But rights groups and opposition politicians widely criticized it from the start, with many pointing to Rwanda’s troubled record on human rights. Critics of the government said that Wednesday’s ruling was a vindication of consistent warnings from legal experts that the idea was unworkable, given Britain’s commitments under multiple international treaties.
The judgment is an awkward moment for Mr. Sunak, who seemed to understand the risks inherent to the policy even as he championed it. In an opinion article that he wrote while running for the Conservative leadership in July 2022, he said the policy was “the right one, but it has to work. Crucially, we cannot waste large sums of taxpayers’ money on the policy only to fall at the first legal hurdle.”
In the ruling, Justice Reed said there were substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers who had their claims heard in Rwanda could face “refoulement,” meaning that genuine refugees could be returned to their countries of origin and face potential violence or ill treatment, in a violation of both British and international law.
The judge added that while proper protections may be put in place in the future, “they have not been shown to be in place now.”
He took time to explain that the court’s ruling did not rest only on the European Convention on Human Rights, an international agreement that Britain helped draft after World War II, and which some hard-right Tory lawmakers want to exit. The legal principle of non-refoulement, he said, “is laid down in the United Nations Refugee Convention to which the U.K. is a party,” as well as the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other international treaties that Britain has ratified.
“It is a core principle of international law, to which the United Kingdom government has repeatedly committed itself on the international stage,” Justice Reed said.
Speaking in Parliament after the ruling, Mr. Sunak said that the government was already working on a new treaty with Rwanda and would address the points made by the court, suggesting that, “if necessary,” he would revisit domestic legislation and international relationships.
No asylum seekers were ever sent to Rwanda, because of a series of legal challenges.
The first deportation flight to the small East African nation was scheduled for June 14, 2022, but it was grounded because of an interim ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which said that an Iraqi man should not be deported until his judicial review had been completed in Britain. As a signatory to the European Convention, Britain accepts judgments from the Strasbourg court. (Both the court and the Convention are entirely separate from the European Union.)
Last December, Britain’s High Court ruled in favor of the government, determining that the Rwanda plan was lawful in principle. But in June, the Court of Appeal overturned that judgment, deeming that Rwanda was not a safe third country and that there was a real risk that asylum seekers would be returned to countries where they faced persecution or other inhumane treatment, even if they had a good claim for asylum. That is the ruling that was upheld on Wednesday.
The case came to Britain’s Supreme Court last month when the five judges heard arguments from the government and from opponents of the plan over three days. Justice Reed said the judgment had been expedited because of its public importance.
Angus McCullough, a lawyer for the United Nations refugee agency, told the judges last month that it “maintains its unequivocal warning against the transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda under the U.K.-Rwanda arrangement,” the Guardian reported. He cited evidence that a similar policy pursued by Israel had led to the disappearance of some asylum seekers after they arrived in Rwanda.
This week, Mr. Sunak fired Suella Braverman, the home secretary who had been an outspoken proponent of the Rwanda plan, after she ignited a political firestorm over comments that homelessness was a “lifestyle choice.” She had also criticized the police over a pro-Palestinian march in London.
It will now be up to her successor, James Cleverly, to oversee the response to the Supreme Court decision, just two days after he was appointed.
A short time after the judgment, Mr. Cleverly issued a measured statement that stood in stark contrast to his predecessor’s approach, saying the government would “carefully review” the ruling “to understand implications and next steps.”
“Our partnership with Rwanda, while bold and ambitious, is just one part of a vehicle of measures to stop the boats and tackle illegal migration,” he wrote, adding, “We will continue to look at every possible avenue to disrupt the vile criminal gangs’ business model of putting innocent lives at risk for their own financial, selfish gain.”
Ms. Braverman had said that it was her “dream” to see asylum seekers sent to Rwanda, and argued that Britain should be prepared to overhaul or even leave the European Convention on Human Rights to make it happen. In an excoriating letter to Mr. Sunak on Tuesday, she accused him of betraying a private promise to use legislation to override the convention, the Human Rights Act and other international law that she said “had thus far obstructed progress” on stopping the boats.
Rashmin Sagoo, the director of the international law program at Chatham House, a British think tank, said that withdrawing from the European Convention, while still a fringe notion, “will continue to be the ball that gets played,” particularly with a Supreme Court ruling against the government.
“From my analysis, it’s a really odd and unconvincing proposition,” she said. “But it’s got really serious implications which require deep scrutiny.”
Stephen Castle contributed reporting.