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U.K. Supreme Court rules government's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful

London — The U.K. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government's controversial plan to send asylum seekers who arrive on Britain's shores without prior permission to Rwanda was unlawful.

"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 judgment published Wednesday said.

Non-refoulement is a core principle of international law under which asylum seekers are protected from being forced back to the country they fled.

The U.K. government's Rwanda plan

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had pledged his government would stop migrants and asylum seekers from crossing over the English Channel in small boats, which they have done in record numbers in recent years. In April 2022, Britain signed a deal with Rwanda to send anyone arriving on its shores without prior permission to the East African nation to have their asylum claims processed there.  

Supreme Court Hands Down Judgement On Government's Migrants To Rwanda Policy
A protestor is seen outside the U.K. Supreme Court ahead of a ruling in which the court determined that the British government's policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, Nov. 15, 2023 in London, England. LEON NEAL/Getty

The plan cost the U.K. government at least $175 million in payments to the Rwandan government, according to The Associated Press, and the legal challenges that culminated with the Supreme Court's Wednesday ruling meant not a single asylum seeker was ever actually flown to Rwanda.

U.K. government stands by the plan, promises new terms

"This 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," Sunak said in response to the ruling, adding later that his government was working on a new treaty with Rwanda and that he would "revisit our domestic legal frameworks" if necessary.

"Illegal migration destroys lives and costs British taxpayers millions of pounds a year. We need to end it and we will do whatever it takes to do so," he said.

Spark in migrants entering the U.K. causes government concern 01:45

Speaking shortly after Sunak, Britain's newly appointed Home Secretary James Cleverly, the government minister in charge of law enforcement and immigration issues, said the government had for months "been working on a plan to provide the certainty that the courts demand," promising to come up with a new treaty with Rwanda that would "make it absolutely clear" to courts in both the U.K. and Europe that the policy "will be consistent with international law."

Rwanda's reaction, and "poor human rights record"

The court's judgment said that part of the reason the U.K. government policy was deemed unlawful was that Rwanda could not be counted on to treat asylum seekers sent there by the U.K. properly.

"Rwanda has a poor human rights record," the judgement said. "The evidence shows that there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that asylum claims will not be determined properly, and that asylum seekers will therefore be at risk of being returned directly or indirectly to their country of origin. The changes and capacity-building needed to eliminate that risk may be delivered in the future, but they were not shown to be in place when the lawfulness of the Rwanda policy had to be considered in these proceedings."

Rwanda's government said in a statement that the decision was ultimately one for the U.K.'s judicial system, but it took "issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum seekers and refugees, in terms of refoulement," adding that the two nations "have been working together to ensure the integration of relocated asylum seekers into Rwandan society."

"Rwanda is committed to its international obligations, and we have been recognized by the UNHCR and other international institutions for our exemplary treatment of refugees," the statement said.

Rights groups including OXFAM expressed relief at the ruling.

The British government's policy "sought to punish rather than protect those fleeing conflict and persecution," said Katy Chakrabortty, head of policy and advocacy at OXFAM.

The ruling came one day after Britain's previous Home Secretary Suella Braverman — seen as an architect of the Rwanda plan — was fired by Sunak for publishing an opinion piece in a newspaper without edits the prime minister's office had requested.

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