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Supreme Court rules policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful

Last week the Supreme Court in England unanimously ruled that the Government’s policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful.

In doing so, it upheld the judgment of the Court of Appeal that Rwanda is not a safe country for the removal of asylum seekers from the UK. This is based on deficiencies in the asylum system in Rwanda, meaning that there are substantial grounds to believe that asylum claims would be wrongly determined. As such, the Court ruled there is a real risk that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda will be returned to their home countries, where they may face persecution or ill-treatment. The Supreme Court held that until the deficiencies with the system in Rwanda are corrected, it would be unlawful for the UK to send asylum seekers there.

The policy was first announced in April 2022, and would involve “anyone entering the UK illegally” after 1 January 2022 being sent to Rwanda for their claims to be processed. There is, however, no official route back to the UK if the asylum claims are deemed to be genuine. The UK has already paid the Rwanda government £140m, but at present no asylum seeker has been sent there.

The policy was first challenged in June 2022 after the European Court of Human Rights intervened shortly before the first flight was due to depart. In December 2022, the High Court ruled that the Rwanda policy was lawful, but this decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in June 2023 due to the risk that refugees would be returned to their country of origin.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak responded to the verdict stating he is “prepared to do what is necessary to get flights offand would “revisit those international relationships to remove the obstacles in our way”. The options he appears to be exploring include negotiating an international treaty with Rwanda to protect asylum seekers being returned to their home countries where they could face persecution. It has also been reported that the Prime Minister is also considering changing domestic law to ensure the policy can be implemented, including disapplying the Human Rights Act.

Former Supreme Court judge Lord Jonathan Sumption has stated that this would be “profoundly discreditable”, still in breach of the Government’s international law obligations, and that “it would be constitutionally a completely extraordinary thing to do, to effectively overrule a decision on the facts, on the evidence, by the highest court in the land”.

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