UK govt doubles down on Rwanda migrant policy despite court defeat
15 November 2023
London (AFP) -
The UK government vowed Wednesday to persevere with a controversial plan to send migrants to Rwanda, despite the Supreme Court upholding a lower court ruling that it was unlawful and should not go ahead.
In a major setback for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a five-judge panel at the UK's highest court unanimously sided with an earlier Court of Appeal decision that the policy was incompatible with Britain's international obligations.
In a 56-page ruling, the judges agreed that Rwanda was not a safe third country and there were 'substantial grounds' to believe it could forcibly return asylum seekers and refugees to places where they could face persecution.
But within hours of the long-awaited judgment, the government said it would press ahead with finalising a 'new treaty' with Rwanda to address those concerns.
Sunak also said he would introduce 'emergency legislation' to parliament to designate Rwanda a safe country to end the 'merry-go-round' of legal challenges.
'I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights,' he told reporters, added that he hoped the first deportees would be sent 'as planned in the spring' next year.
Sunak said that if the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) 'chooses to intervene against the express wishes of parliament, I am prepared to do what is necessary to get the flights off'.
Earlier, newly appointed interior minister James Cleverly told MPs that a new treaty will 'make it absolutely clear' to British and European courts that the Rwanda policy 'will be consistent with international law'.
It would require Rwanda to make a legal commitment to not deport people to their home countries.
In a call shortly after the ruling, Sunak and Rwandan President Paul Kagame 'reiterated their firm commitment to making our migration partnership work', Downing Street said.
'Both leaders... agreed to take the necessary steps to ensure this is a robust and lawful policy and to stop the boats as soon as possible,' Sunak's office added.
- 'Appetite' -
The Migration and Economic Development Partnership agreed in April last year envisages sending to Rwanda anyone who has made what London calls 'dangerous or illegal journeys' to Britain on boats and hidden in lorries.
The first deportees were aboard a plane to fly to the African country in June 2022 when a last-minute ECHR injunction prevented any deportations, prompting the legal challenges.
The government insists the scheme is crucial to deter 'illegal' immigration across the Channel from France on inflatable vessels -- an emotive issue set to feature prominently in the next general election.
More than 27,000 have made the perilous journey this year -- down on the nearly 46,000 who crossed in 2022, but still far short of meeting Sunak's vow to 'stop the boats'.
His administration says both regular and irregular immigration must be slashed to ease pressure on government-funded services, such as health and housing asylum seekers.
Britain's asylum backlog stands at 122,585, after falling 12 percent from a record high in February.
Sunak's government passed legislation in July barring any 'illegal' arrivals from claiming asylum, but it relies on finding third countries to send them to.
Opponents criticise the choice of Rwanda, while arguing the policy is cruel, costly and difficult to implement.
The government in Kigali said Wednesday it 'take(s) issue' with the ruling that it is not a safe third country.
Despite the pledge to push ahead with its Rwanda plan, there is growing speculation London will now try to strike deals with other countries.
Cleverly claimed there was 'an appetite for this concept', and said several other European countries were exploring similar agreements.
- 'Ignore the laws' -
The Supreme Court decision could widen rifts in the ruling Conservative party and prompt renewed demands from right-wingers that Britain withdraws from the ECHR.
Former interior minister Suella Braverman launched a scathing attack on Sunak on Tuesday, a day after he sacked her, accusing him of 'betrayal' over immigration and saying he had 'no appetite for doing what is necessary'.
In parliament on Wednesday, Sunak told MPs he was 'prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships' if 'domestic legal frameworks or international conventions' frustrated the plans.
Outspoken Tory party deputy chairman Lee Anderson said ministers should 'ignore the laws' and deport migrants the day they arrive.
The main Labour opposition, riding high in the polls, accused Sunak of failing to 'have any serious plan to tackle dangerous boat crossings'.
Migrant advocates, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR which advised the Supreme Court on international refugee law and protection standards, welcomed Wednesday's court ruling.
Amnesty International's UK chief executive Sacha Deshmukh urged ministers to 'now draw a line under a disgraceful chapter in the UK's political history'.