Suella Braverman’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda ruled unlawful by Court of Appeal

Rishi Sunak says government will attempt appeal to Supreme Court, as plans to ‘stop the boats’ dealt severe blow

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Thursday 29 June 2023 13:56 BST
UK government's Rwanda asylum plan is unlawful, says Court of Appeal

The £140m deal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful, in a major blow to the government’s pledge to “stop the boats”.

It lost the latest stage of the long-running legal battle over the plan after Court of Appeal judges concluded the African nation is not a safe country. Flights will remain suspended ahead of a showdown at the UK Supreme Court.

Rishi Sunak said he believed the Rwandan government’s assurances that there would be no risk to asylum seekers, adding: “While I respect the court I fundamentally disagree with their conclusions.

Follow The Independent’s live blog on the latest developments followingt he ruling

“Rwanda is a safe country ... we will now seek permission to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court.”

The Court of Appeal granted an appeal by asylum seekers selected for deportation, who were backed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), on the grounds of Rwanda’s safety but dismissed other arguments.

The outgoing lord chief justice, Lord Burnett, said: “The High Court’s decision that Rwanda is a safe third country is reversed. Unless and until the deficiencies in its asylum processes are corrected, removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda will be unlawful.”

He said the decision “implies no view whatever about the political merits or otherwise of the Rwanda policy”, which has already seen Kigali paid £140m and the government spend more than £1m on legal costs.

Judges found that ministers were wrong to rely on unevidenced assurances from Rwanda that “seriously deficient” processes would be improved. They found that:

  • the Home Office ignored “the past and the present situation” in favour of promises by Rwanda
  • it failed to probe the disappearance and death of migrants sent to Rwanda under a previous deal with Israel, and a mass shooting of refugees by police during a 2018 protest
  • the government responded to damning evidence from the UN Refugee Agency with statements dependent on information from the Rwandan government
  • Home Office officials “were too ready to accept assurances which were unevidenced”
  • Rwanda does not have systems in place to legally and safely process asylum seekers from the UK

The Rwanda plan is a core part of the prime minister’s pledge to stop small boat crossings, and an important pillar of the new Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to see all small boat migrants detained and deported without asylum claims being considered.

Rishi Sunak says he 'will not rest' until small boats are stopped

The PM previously told parliament that no flights would leave for Kigali until legal challenges had been resolved, and that will take several more months.

Without the Rwanda agreement, the government currently has nowhere to deport asylum seekers.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said the court judgment “shows that Rishi Sunak has no plan to fix the Tories’ small boats chaos and his only idea is completely unravelling”.

“Time and again, ministers have gone for gimmicks instead of getting a grip, and slogans instead of solutions, while the Tory boats chaos has got worse,” she added. “The Rwanda scheme is unworkable, unethical and extortionate, a costly and damaging distraction from the urgent action the government should be taking.”

The ruling was celebrated by refugee charities, who called for the government to scrap the policy once and for all, and instead invest in Britain’s asylum system and clearing record backlogs.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “The threat of being sent to Rwanda has been causing huge distress, anxiety and trauma to those we work with, who have already been through so much.

“We hope that the government will take this opportunity to rethink its approach, which would cause great human suffering and damage the UK's reputation as a country that values human rights and offers those claiming asylum a fair hearing on British soil.”

Suella Braverman extended the deal in March, to cover modern slavery victims as well as asylum seekers

Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson for the government of Rwanda, said it “takes issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum seekers and refugees”.

“Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership work,” she added. “When the migrants do arrive, we will welcome them and provide them with the support they’ll need to build new lives in Rwanda.”

A group of 10 asylum seekers from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, Sudan and Albania challenged the Rwanda policy on eight grounds. Lawyers representing the Asylum Aid charity unsuccessfully argued that the way people are selected for the scheme and given the opportunity to resist deportation is unlawful.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also intervened in the battle, telling the Court of Appeal that safeguards in the agreement signed by Priti Patel in April 2022 “do not exist or have never been used”, and that it had never known Rwanda to treat asylum seekers in the ways promised.

Lord Burnett reconsidered the case with Sir Geoffrey Vos and Lord Justice Underhill, after the High Court ruled in December that the Rwanda deal was lawful.

They were divided on the issue of whether Rwanda was a safe country to receive asylum seekers, and made a majority ruling with the Lord Chief Justice dissenting.

Demonstrators outside the Royal Courts of Justice during the legal battle

Sir Geoffrey and Lord Justice Underhill found there were “substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that persons sent to Rwanda will be returned to their home countries where they faced persecution or other inhumane treatment, when, in fact, they have a good claim for asylum”.

The two judges said their conclusion was based on evidence that the country’s system for deciding asylum claims was “inadequate”, and that assurances given to the UK “do not establish that the necessary changes” have taken place.

Lord Burnett, however, said “assurances given by the Rwandan government were sufficient to ensure that there is no real risk” of asylum seekers being returned to countries where they face harm.

During a hearing in April, the Court of Appeal was told that the Home Office breached several legal duties in deciding that Rwanda was a safe country to receive refugees, and failed to properly investigate the outcome of a similar deal with Israel which operated from 2013 to 2018.

A barrister representing men selected for deportation described Rwanda as “an authoritarian one-party state”, which “imprisons, tortures and murders those it considers its opponents”.

The court heard that asylum seekers previously sent from Israel were detained without the opportunity of claiming asylum, disappeared, smuggled to Uganda and some died while attempting to journey towards Libya.

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