Sunak battles Supreme Court ruling: What next for the UK’s Rwanda plan?

UK announces emergency legislation after Supreme Court rules against government plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.

An activist blocking a road leading away from the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre holds a banner during a protest against the British Governments plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda
An activist blocks a road near Heathrow Airport in London during a protest against plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Hours after the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruled that the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to the African country was unlawful, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised to introduce emergency legislation that confirms that Rwanda is a safe country.

The emergency legislation “will provide a guarantee in law that those who are relocated from the UK to Rwanda will be protected against removal from Rwanda.”

It will also “ensure that people cannot further delay flights by bringing systemic challenges in our domestic courts, and stop our policy being repeatedly blocked,” Sunak told reporters on Wednesday.

The announcement came as human rights groups celebrated the Supreme Court decision, stating that asylum seekers would be at “risk of ill-treatment” if sent back to their home countries once in Rwanda.

A joint civil society statement signed by 140 organisations, including prominent campaign groups such as the Runnymede Trust and Liberty, had described the plan as “cruel and immoral”.

“We urge the Government to immediately abandon such plans with Rwanda or with any other country, and instead protect the rights of people who have come to our country in search of sanctuary,” it said.

Maddie Harris, founder of the UK-based Humans for Rights Network – which also signed the statement – said the Supreme Court had made it “abundantly clear that Rwanda causes a serious risk to individuals in terms of refoulement to countries where they may face persecution or death”.

“An emergency law does not eliminate that risk. What the [UK] government is saying is: ‘We don’t care if we send people back to their death,’” she told Al Jazeera.

Harris said it was unclear how an emergency law could take precedence over a Supreme Court ruling.

“This is an unprecedented announcement and [we will have to see] if this is political posturing or if it allows them the possibility to remove people,” she said.

The court decision on Wednesday dealt a major blow to Sunak, whose promise to crack down on undocumented migration across the English Channel stands largely unfulfilled as he prepares for a general election that must be held at some point before the end of January 2025.

“This was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats,” he told reporters.

‘Clear breach of international law’

Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), told Al Jazeera that the situation for refugees in the UK “remains very precarious”.

“It is to be hoped that the government will respect the decision of the Supreme Court, otherwise this will become a rule of law crisis, not just a political issue,” she said.

Woollard added that the controversy needed “to be addressed as a matter of urgency” as asylum seekers were stuck in limbo, often in detention.

At least 75 percent of the people seeking protection in the UK are refugees and are officially recognised as in need of protection at first instance. Even more receive a protection status after a review of the first decision as they hail from war-torn countries including Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

“The national legislation that codified this deal essentially removed the right to apply for asylum in Europe from people arriving across the Channel. This is a clear breach of international law,” Woollard said.

Akiko Hart, interim director of the civil rights group Liberty, said attempts to relocate asylum seekers to a third country are part of a broader push to dismantle important checks and balances that prevent the government from infringing human rights.

“They are trying to change the rules so that only they can win. We all have human rights by virtue of being human, no matter how hard the government tries to divide us,” Hart said in a statement. “We must protect everyone’s human rights – especially those seeking safety and protection from harm.”

Amnesty International UK said that the government has been pursuing an “underlying policy of refusing to process people’s asylum claims”.

“This policy has made complete chaos of the UK’s asylum system and this shameful deal has simply exacerbated the mess,” Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said in a statement.

“The only responsible, effective and decent response to this judgement should be to get down to the serious task of fairly and efficiently determining people’s claims.”

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick had hinted earlier this year that the government would be prepared to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – a bill of rights that protects the right to life, security, freedom of thought and expression that dates back to 1953 – to pave the way for deportations to Rwanda.

Deshmukh said the idea that the UK should withdraw from the ECHR “to pursue this failed policy” was “nonsensical and should be immediately binned”.

“The government should make policies which fit with the law, not fit the law around their policies,” he said.

Una Boyd, an immigration solicitor at the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), told Al Jazeera that the Rwanda plan was part of a “broader pattern of the UK government undermining and attacking the ECHR”.

For the Belfast-based organisation, the matter is of particular importance as the ECHR rights underpin the commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing arrangement between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland signed in 1998.

“In Northern Ireland, any attack on the ECHR undermines and threatens our peace agreements,” Boyd said. “CAJ is calling for the UK government to move towards a fair and human rights complaint immigration regime, which protects the rights of everyone in our communities.”

Source: Al Jazeera