The Memo: Government’s Rwanda plans unlawful, says Supreme Court

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Government’s Rwanda plans unlawful, says Supreme Court

Emily Dunham – 20 November 2023

The UK government had a busy week last week, from cabinet shake-ups with Love-Island-style announcements, to a Supreme Court judgment that found plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to be unlawful. For some time now, Rishi Sunak’s Conservative government has been working on plans to send asylum seekers arriving in the UK in small boats to the East African country of Rwanda, where their asylum claims would then be processed. The plans were first announced by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, with the Ministers behind the plans believing that the system could act as a deterrent to those attempting to cross the channel to seek asylum.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s decision rested on evidence showing serious problems with the fairness and justice of the proposed Rwandan system. The Court said that the government had failed to properly assess whether or not there was a risk that any genuine refugee sent to Rwanda could ultimately be sent back to the country from where they had fled, which breaches the ban on inhumane treatment in Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Whilst it was suspected that a judgment of this nature could lead to a push for the UK’s withdrawal from the ECHR, the Supreme Court also pointed out that the plans breach safeguards in three British laws passed by Parliament over the last 30 years.

Home Office teams have been making efforts to ensure the safety of the proposed system - for example, experts have been sent to the country to help it to improve how it handles these cases, and the government is paying for training and support, which could help to improve the likelihood of the plans going ahead. Whilst the plans have already cost the UK government £140m, the Supreme Court found that no proper assessment had been made about the safety of Rwanda for asylum seekers, and a lot would need to change before historical abuses in Rwanda could cease to be a factor.

Following the judgment,Sunak said that he would do “what is necessary to get flights off,” and the government has said that it will use emergency laws to allow the first flights to leave. However, questions have been raised about the potential timelines for new legislation to be passed. The next general election is drawing near, and changes of this nature can take months. Sunak says that the government are already working on a new treaty with Rwanda to confirm that asylum seekers will not be sent back to the countries from which they are fleeing.

It is anticipated that even a new treaty will be challenged in the courts, and it’s likely that MPs will resist any attempts to bypass human rights laws and international conventions to put the system in place. Keep an eye out for more news regarding the plans and their legality, because big changes could be on the way, and with a general election on the horizon, things could certainly get interesting.