Britain’s Supreme Court dealt the government a defeat on Wednesday, ruling that its flagship policy to send migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda is unlawful. The government is vowing to make some changes and press on with the controversial plan.
Here’s a look at the decision and what could happen next.
WHAT IS THE RWANDA PLAN?
The Rwanda plan is the British government’s response to the growing number of migrants from around the world -- 46,000 in 2022 – who cross the English Channel from France to Britain in small boats. Most people who arrive that way apply for asylum, and in the past many have been granted it. The Conservative government says these migrants should not be treated as genuine refugees because they did not claim asylum in another safe country, such as France, that they reached first.
In an attempt to deter people from making the risky journeys, the U.K. struck a deal with Rwanda in April 2022 to send migrants who arrive in the U.K. as stowaways or in boats to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay.
Human rights groups and other critics of the plan say it is unworkable and unethical to send migrants to a country 4,000 miles (6,400 miles) away that they don’t want to live in. No one has yet been sent to Rwanda, as the plan has been challenged in the courts.
Making the plan work has become a central pillar of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to “stop the boats.”
WHAT DID THE UK SUPREME COURT SAY?
The Supreme Court ruled that Rwanda is not a safe third country where migrants can be sent. Five justices said unanimously that “the removal of the claimants to Rwanda would expose them to a real risk of ill-treatment” because they could be sent back to the home countries they had fled.
The judges said there was evidence Rwanda had a culture that misunderstood its obligations under the Refugee Convention, was dismissive toward asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and had little experience of the asylum procedures needed to handle the cases of migrants from around the world.
WHAT WAS THE U.K. GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE?
Sunak said the government will soon seal a legally binding treaty with Rwanda that will address the court’s concerns, partly by barring Rwanda from sending any migrants deported from the U.K back to their home countries. He also plans to pass legislation declaring Rwanda a safe country in U.K. law.
If that fails to stop legal challenges, Sunak said he would consider ignoring or leaving international human rights treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights. That move is backed by some members of Sunak’s governing Conservative Party, but would draw strong domestic opposition and international criticism. The only European countries that are not party to the rights convention are Belarus and Russia.
The Rwandan government insists it is “committed to its international obligations” and has been recognized by the U.N. and other international institutions “for our exemplary treatment of refugees." Rwanda’s government says the country is ready to receive migrants from Britain, and has plans to build more than 1,000 houses, including recreational facilities, for the deportees.
HAVE OTHER COUNTRIES TRIED SIMILAR POLICIES?
Britain is not alone in trying to control irregular migration. Much of Europe and the U.S. is struggling with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.
A few countries have tried offshore processing of asylum seekers – notably Australia, which has operated an asylum-processing center on the Pacific island nation of Nauru since 2012.
From 2013 to 2018, Israel had a deal with Rwanda to deport African migrants, until Israel’s supreme court declared it unlawful. Talks on a similar arrangement between Denmark and Rwanda have not borne fruit.
“There’s no other evidence that this policy really working elsewhere, at least within the context of Europe,” said Joelle Grogan, a legal expert at the U.K. in a Changing Europe think-tank.
Italy recently reached a deal with Albania for the Balkan country to temporarily house and process some of the thousands of migrants who reach Italian shores. There is a crucial difference to the U.K. plan: it's not a one-way trip. Successful asylum-seekers would get to start new lives in Italy, not Albania.