LONDON — The British government has lost a Supreme Court fight over its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, dealing a major blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and emboldening Conservative critics on his right.
The U.K.’s final court of appeal on Wednesday dismissed a challenge by the government to an earlier finding that its flagship immigration policy was unlawful.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the Court of Appeal that there was a “real risk” the U.K.’s plan would lead to asylum seekers being sent back to their home countries by Rwandan authorities without due process.
Sunak — who had promised to use the policy to get tough on migration as an election looms — said the government would “now consider next steps” and stressed it had “spent the last few months planning for all eventualities.”
He is under major pressure from parts of his governing Conservative Party to do more to deter migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats.
Sunak’s government wants to deport people who make “dangerous, unnecessary and illegal journeys” to the U.K. to the east African nation for their asylum claims to be processed and decided by Rwandan authorities.
It has already struck a multi-million pound deal with Rwanda to make that happen, and it would see successful asylum applicants allowed to live in Rwanda, not the U.K.
But no flights have yet taken off and the idea has been mired in legal challenge.
The ruling follows months of deliberation, with representatives of asylum seekers arguing that people deported to Rwanda are likely to be “refouled” — sent by Rwanda back to their home countries and placed at risk of harm despite having a good claim for asylum.
The British government argued Rwanda was a safe third country with no substantial grounds to say asylum seekers would be at risk of ill treatment.
But that argument was dismissed by the Supreme Court Wednesday.
While the court accepted the U.K.’s argument that the Rwandan asylum system may eventually have the capacity “to produce accurate and fair decisions,” it sided with the Court of Appeal and the judgment said there were “substantial grounds for believing that a real risk of refoulement” existed.
The Supreme Court’s judgment on the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda will have major ramifications for Rishi Sunak | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The clear judgment is likely to give fresh ammunition to Sunak’s Tory critics. Suella Braverman, who was fired as his home secretary overseeing immigration policy on Monday, claimed in a stinging letter Tuesday night that Sunak had rejected efforts to come up with a “plan B” should the government lose.
On Wednesday, former minister Neil O’Brien said in a post on X that the U.K. must “now pass new law” to override the U.K.’s Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights “to stop the criminal & dangerous small boats trade.”
Former Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, also on the right of the party, said the government “will need to legislate now to make the Rwanda scheme work.”
He is among those pressing the government to amend the Human Rights Acts and “legislate to override the European Convention on Human Rights.” He hit out the U.N. Refugee Agency, whose evidence on flaws with the Rwandan asylum system was presented to the top court.
Rees-Mogg said on GB News: “Essentially, this judgement boils down to who do you trust to decide whether Rwanda is safe? Do you trust the judgement of the Home Secretary, or do you trust the judgement of a United Nations agency which has had all sorts of problems?”
Responding to the verdict, Sunak said: “We have seen today’s judgment and will now consider next steps.
“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.”
But, piling in, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the opposition Labour Party had “argued from the start this plan is unworkable and extortionately expensive,” adding: “Ministers knew about the weaknesses in this scheme from the start and yet they insisted on making it their flagship policy.”
This developing story is being updated.