The UK’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court Wednesday, dealing a potentially fatal blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship migration policy and sparking a furious revolt from the right wing of British politics.
The UK’s highest court ruled unanimously against the government, siding instead with a previous appeals court ruling that found the policy – which has been roundly condemned by humanitarian bodies – was not lawful.
Its ruling unambiguously dismantled the government’s appeal, and scuppers an effort to fly asylum seekers who arrive in the UK illegally to the east African nation. The plan was first announced in April 2022, but has been wrought with legal challenges and has failed to deport a single person.
Sunak said on Wednesday evening that he would instead pursue a formal treaty with Rwanda – a move that would be subject to further legal scrutiny – and would introduce “emergency legislation” that would enable Britain’s parliament to unilaterally declare Rwanda a safe country.
Judges found that Rwanda could not be considered a safe country to which to send asylum seekers, as the government has argued, because there was a risk that genuine refugees would be returned to the countries they had fled from.
The ruling led to calls from the right of the Conservative Party to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a prospect that has loomed over the government for months and has caused deep rifts between centrists and right-wingers in Britain’s ruling party.
Sunak did not endorse those calls on Wednesday but hinted that he would consider such a move if a re-worked policy was blocked. “I’m prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships to remove the obstacles in our way,” he said. “I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights.”
“There are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment by reason of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
They found that Rwanda’s system for processing asylum claims, its poor human rights record, and its previous failure to comply with non-refoulement agreements meant that the UK government could not be sure asylum seekers would have their claims considered safely and properly.
And they noted that as recently as 2021, the British government criticized Rwanda for “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture.”
Sunak told lawmakers on Wednesday that a new treaty with Rwanda was already being worked on. He admitted earlier that the ruling “was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats.”
A political fight erupts
More immediately, Sunak must work to navigate the battle within the Conservative Party that has been brewing for months and erupted following Wednesday’s ruling.
The Supreme Court made clear that the ECHR is not the only convention against which it considered the policy, stating that other international treaties and UK legislation protect refugees and asylum seekers from being deported without guarantees over their safety. But many on the right of his party have nonetheless been plotting a push to leave the ECHR if the court blocked the policy, a dramatic international withdrawal that moderates have strongly opposed, and were quick to offer ultimatums for Sunak after the ruling.
Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who was fired on Monday after a series of scandals, led those calls on Wednesday, calling for “emergency legislation” and writing on X (formerly known as Twitter) that “there is no chance of curbing illegal migration within the current legal framework.”