The ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine have left little room for good news, but I was delighted by two events last week: Suella Braverman’s long overdue sacking for her unauthorised Times article, and the Supreme Court’s judgement that the Rwanda scheme is unlawful.
The controversial Rwandan deportation plan
The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for ‘processing’ was first mooted in 2020 by the then prime minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel. From the outset, it was mired in controversy, as an in-depth analysis by The Guardian outlines. The then government persisted with the scheme against the advice of the British High Commissioner in Kigali, as well as lawyers, politicians and refugee charities, who all warned the PM about Rwanda’s poor human rights record.
The first flight taking refugees to Rwanda in June 2022 was cancelled at the eleventh hour after an injunction by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This led to a Divisional Court case in December 2022 which deemed the plan to be lawful. By then, Braverman was home secretary, with a “dream” and “obsession” to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Since then, the scheme has ping-ponged from one court to another, as the government tries to get it off the ground (literally) and opponents fight it.
The government’s initial victory was short-lived, as the Court of Appeal ruled the scheme unlawful in June 2023, concluding that Rwanda was not a safe third country and that asylum seekers sent there ran a real risk of being returned to their home countries (‘refoulement’), where they were likely to face persecution. Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law. Braverman then appealed to the Supreme Court against that decision.
The Rwanda scheme is unlawful
The Supreme Court upheld the appeal court’s judgement, because “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.” The unanimous judgement, delivered by Lord Reed, felt like a beacon of sanity and logic – a welcome contrast to Braverman’s increasingly inflammatory and unsubstantiated language about refugees.
The Supreme Court judges drew on substantial evidence from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), demonstrating the “serious and systematic defects in Rwanda’s procedures” in processing asylum claims, and the “apparent inadequacy” of Rwanda’s understanding of the Refugee Convention.
Welcoming the Supreme Court judgement, the Law Society commented that this was the “end of the line” for the Rwandan policy and that the ruling called into question the very basis of the Illegal Migration Act. Writing in The New European, James Ball called this “morally abhorrent” policy a “colossal waste of time and money.” The decision was a great victory for those seeking a more humane approach to the treatment of refugees and a huge relief to those seeking asylum.
Calls to ‘ignore the law’
However, this relief was short-lived as PM Rishi Sunak immediately announced that he would revise the treaty with Rwanda and bring in emergency legislation declaring that it is a safe country. How this could be done against the weight of UNHCR evidence and human rights legislation is unclear.
Unsurprisingly, Tory right-wingers have weighed in, too. Conservative Party vice-chair Lee Anderson called for the government to “ignore the law and send them [refugees] anyway.” Braverman said much the same, arguing that ministers should ignore human rights laws “in their entirety” to push the scheme through. The usual calls for the UK to withdraw from the ECHR have also been made.
But more moderate voices have also been heard. Ex-minister Damian Green called Braverman’s proposal “unconservative” and akin to the “behaviour of dictators.” Former chancellor George Osborne argued that any withdrawal from the European convention was “off the table” now that centrist James Cleverley was home secretary and David Cameron the new foreign secretary.
Can Sunak override international law?
Nevertheless, Sunak’s latest announcements suggest that, rather than going full tilt against the ECHR, he will in effect try to “disapply the Human Rights Act”, through which international laws on asylum are enacted in the UK. This smacks of desperation – a weak PM recklessly trying to appease the extreme right and stave off a revolt before the next election.
He is in for a hard fight, as all opposition parties and the Lords are likely to contest the emergency bill. The Institute of Government argues that, even if parliament did pass the bill, it cannot override the UK’s obligations under international law.
The real victims are overlooked
In all the heat following the Supreme Court announcement, the thousands of asylum seekers who might be affected by the Rwanda plan, if it is implemented, remain in a state of uncertainty. According to Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, over 24,000 ‘notices of intent’ have been sent to those who face being sent to Rwanda, causing “anxiety and fear…distress and trauma.”
Solomon argues that, without the Rwanda deal, the Illegal Migration Act has no basis, therefore thousands of refugees could be left in indefinite limbo, unable to claim asylum. These would add to the huge backlog of already more than 120,000 cases in the asylum system. He warns that many of those desperately seeking asylum are already going underground, leaving them more vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.
Let us hope that more compassionate voices hold sway and that Sunak finally ditches this inhumane policy. But I’m not holding my breath.