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UK Government Suffers Significant Setback on Rwanda Asylum Policy

The Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the UK Government’s controversial plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.

Introduced initially by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 14 April 2022 to tackle the increasing numbers attempting to enter the UK via small boats in the Channel, the proposals set out a scheme where illegal entrants would be sent to Rwanda to claim asylum, rather than having their claim considered in the UK. If their application to the Rwandan authorities was then approved, they would be granted asylum in Rwanda and would not be allowed to return to the UK.

The deal reportedly cost the Government £120 million pounds and was signed by Priti Patel, the then Home Secretary, and her Rwandan counterpart.

However in a ruling today (Wednesday, 14 November 2023), the judges agreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision that sending anyone to Rwanda in this way would expose them to “a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement” and that while removing asylum seekers to a third-country was lawful in principle, Rwanda’s problematic asylum system would leave UK asylum seekers with a real risk of being forced to return to their home countries. In doing so, they could face persecution or other inhumane treatment, despite potentially having a good claim for asylum.

In the judgment, reference was made to the principle of non-refoulement, or the need to ensure that refugees are not returned to a country “where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” and in order for Rwanda to qualify as a safe third country to accept asylum seekers, this principle would need to be respected. However, the Supreme Court found that it was likely on the evidence that Rwanda would not abide by this principle.

Lord Reed and Lord Lloyd-Jones, in agreement with Lord Hodge, Lords Briggs and Lord Sales, said: “The principle of non-refoulement is therefore given effect not only by the ECHR but also by other international conventions to which the United Kingdom is party. It is a core principle of international law, to which the United Kingdom government has repeatedly committed itself on the international stage, consistently with this country’s reputation for developing and upholding the rule of law.”

The decision appeared to be a significant blow to the government, in a week already filled with controversy on the back of Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s dismissal.

In Prime Minister’s Questions, Rishi Sunak told The House of Commons that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to put a stop to the small boats crossing the Channel and would be prepared to review the UK laws and international relationships if they continued to frustrate the Government’s plans to deport asylum seekers.

The full judgement can be found here.


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