British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets the Rwandan President Paul Kagame at Downing Street in London
By Michael Holden and Sam Tobin REUTERS
Britain’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, dealing a crushing blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before an election expected next year.
With his flagship immigration policy in tatters, Sunak said he was working on a new treaty with Rwanda, and said if this did not solve the issue, he would pass new laws and revisit any international treaties which frustrated his plans.
Under the scheme, Britain intended to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrived on its shores without permission to the East African country in a bid to deter migrants crossing the Channel from Europe in small boats.
But the top court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that Rwanda could not be considered a safe third country, delighting opponents who said the policy was unworkable and cruel, and infuriating those on the right wing of Sunak’s Conservative Party.
Sunak, whose party is trailing by some 20 points in opinion polls, signalled to those angry lawmakers that Britain could potentially leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other such treaties as some have demanded.
“If it becomes clear that our domestic legal frameworks or international conventions are still frustrating plans at that point, I am prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships,” Sunak told parliament.
“The British people expect us to do whatever it takes to stop the boats.”
The Rwanda scheme has been the central plank of Sunak’s immigration policy as he prepares to face an election next year, amid rising concern among some voters about the numbers of asylum seekers from Europe.
The ruling had taken on even greater political significance after Sunak on Monday sacked Interior Minister Suella Braverman, a popular figure on his party’s right whose remit included dealing with immigration.
She launched a scathing attack on Sunak on Tuesday, saying he had broken promises on tackling immigration and betrayed the British people.
After becoming prime minister in October last year, Sunak vowed to “stop the boats”, one of the five key pledges of his premiership.
This year more than 27,000 people have arrived on the southern English coast without permission, after a record 45,755 were detected in 2022. Meanwhile the cost of housing the 175,000 migrants waiting an asylum decision is costing 8 million pounds ($10 million) a day.
The Rwanda policy was originally drawn up by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an initial 140 million pound ($180 million) deal.
Critics, ranging from opposition lawmakers as well as some Conservatives to church leaders and the United Nations refugee agency, had argued the policy was flawed, a waste of money, immoral and simply would not work.
“He was told over and over again that this would happen, that it wouldn’t work, and it was just the latest Tory (Conservative) gimmick,” Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour party, told parliament.
“But he bet everything on it. And now he’s totally exposed. The central pillar of his government has crumbled beneath it.”
Supreme Court President Robert Reed said the five judges involved agreed there were “substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of refoulement”, meaning being sent back to their country of origin where they could be at risk of ill-treatment.
This would be in breach of a number of international treaties, including the ECHR, Reed said. But he left open the chance the scheme could be resurrected, saying “the changes needed to eliminate the risk of refoulement may be delivered in the future, but they have not been shown to be in place now”.
“This has forced our hand a little bit now: we should just put the planes in the air now and force them to go to Rwanda,” Lee Anderson, the Conservative’s Deputy Party Chairman, was quoted by British media as saying.
“The government should ignore the law and send them back now. These people are intruders and should be sent back.”
The ruling will also be examined closely across Europe, where Germany and other governments are looking how to reduce the number of asylum seekers, and the European Union is seeking to overhaul the bloc’s migration rules.
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(Additioanl reporting by William James, Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill and Alistair Smout; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kate Holton, William Maclean)