Supreme Court dismisses government's Rwanda appeal

Sunak says his government will "consider next steps" after its Rwanda immigration plan was ruled unlawful once more
Protests against the Rwanda scheme. Photo: Chris Batson/Alamy

By Zoe Crowther

15 Nov 2023

The Supreme Court has dismissed the government’s Rwanda scheme appeal, finding that the policy is unlawful on the grounds that asylum-seekers could be sent back to their countries of origin by Rwanda.

The Rwanda plan, struck in April 2022, was an agreement between the UK and Rwandan governments to send asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda and have their claims for asylum processed and decided by Rwanda. The UK government has already paid Rwanda £140 million so far.

In June, the Court of Appeal ruled that the scheme was unlawful, but then-home secretary Suella Braverman appealed for the ruling to be overturned. Five Supreme Court judges have now decided in agreement of the ruling, having spent about a month considering legal arguments.

The Supreme Court judge Lord Reed said that the Court of Appeal were entitled to reach the conclusion that the scheme might break international law because it could potentially breach the rule that asylum-seekers cannot be sent back to their country of origin if their life is at risk.  

“We agree with their conclusion,” the judge said. “The home secretary’s appeal is therefore dismissed.”

In response, prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “We have seen today’s judgment and will now consider next steps. 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."  

He went on: “Crucially, the Supreme Court – like the Court of Appeal and the High Court before it – has confirmed that the principle of sending illegal migrants to a safe third country for processing is lawful. This confirms the government’s clear view from the outset."

The judge cited evidence from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that showed a risk that Rwanda did not have a proper system to process asylum claims, making it likely that “asylum-seekers may be returned to their country of origin”.

Braverman’s case “failed to pay proper consideration to UNCHR evidence”, according to the judge and he said the Court thought this “was a mistake”.

“Rwanda has a poor human rights record,” the judge said, listing how the government had carried out extrajudicial killings and torture. He also raised concerns about media and political freedoms, and questioned whether Rwandan courts act independently of Rwanda governments in assessing appeals of claims in “politically sensitive cases”.

“There are systemic defects in Rwanda’s procedures and institutions in processing asylum claims,” he said.

Lord Reed also referenced Rwanda’s 100% claim rejection rate of asylum seekers from certain conflict zones such as Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and Rwanda's failure to fulfil undertakings it gave to the government of Israel in a similar agreement between 2013 and 2018. 

The ruling presents a huge issue for the government, as the scheme is fundamental to its plans to “stop the boats”, one of the prime minister’s five key pledges at the start of 2023. 

Former home secretary Suella Braverman wrote a letter to Rishi Sunak on Tuesday accusing him of betraying the nation by backtracking on a secret deal to ignore European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) rulings.

Responding to the news that the Rwanda plan has been ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court, Yvette Cooper MP, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, said the prime minister's policy had "failed".

“This damning judgment on his Rwanda policy, where he has already spent more than £140 million of taxpayers’ money, exposes Rishi Sunak’s failure to get any grip or have any serious plan to tackle dangerous boat crossings, which are undermining border security and putting lives at risk," she said.

The original version of this story was written by Zoe Crowther, a reporter at CSW sister publication Politics Home, where the article was first published. Additional reporting by Tom Scotson

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