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Response to asylum-seekers is in limbo, says Welby after Supreme Court ruling on Rwanda policy

15 November 2023


Tofique Hossain, an immigration lawyer, who was involved in bringing the case, is interviewed outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday

Tofique Hossain, an immigration lawyer, who was involved in bringing the case, is interviewed outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday

CHURCH leaders and campaigners have called on the Government to abandon its plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda since the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful.

The Prime Minister said, however, that the Government would introduce “emergency legislation” to Parliament to enable flights to Rwanda to go ahead.

On Wednesday morning, five Supreme Court judges unanimously upheld a Court of Appeal ruling that said that the policy would leave people sent to Rwanda open to human-rights breaches (News, 7 July). The High Court had ruled last December that the policy was lawful (News, 23 December 2022).

The Supreme Court ruling said that there were “substantial grounds” to believe that people deported to Rwanda could then be sent to places where they would be unsafe. The Rwandan government had entered into the agreement in good faith, the judges said, but it lacked “practical ability to fulfil its assurances, at least in the short term” that it could fix “the present deficiencies of the Rwandan asylum system”.

The judges did not rule, however, that the principle of sending asylum-seekers to a third country was unlawful. It was because they did not deem Rwanda to be safe that they ruled the policy was unlawful. This was based on the principle of “non-refoulement”, established under UK and international human-rights law: that an asylum-seeker should not be sent to a country where they might be in danger.

Mr Sunak has argued that the policy would play a crucial part in “stopping the boats” of migrants crossing the English Channel. Suella Braverman, who was sacked as Home Secretary on Monday, had described it as her “obsession” and “dream” to one day see a flight carrying asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Responding to the ruling, a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the Church of England agreed with the Government that the country’s borders could not be open and that people should be stopped from risking their lives by crossing the Channel in boats.

“But the Church has also been clear in our profound concerns — moral and practical — about outsourcing our obligations to refugees to Rwanda. We have been clear that the inefficiencies of our asylum system and its failure to treat all people with compassion and dignity must be addressed

“Today’s decision by the Supreme Court leaves our response to desperate people fleeing conflict and persecution in a state of limbo. I hope this judgement will give the Government the opportunity to reflect and reconsider its approach.”

He called for “the politics of division” to be set aside, and for the issue of asylum and immigration to be approached “with a shared sense of purpose . . . based on fairness, compassion and the God-given dignity of every human being.

“The Church of England continues to call for the 1951 Refugee Convention to be built upon so it can meet the challenges we face today. We want to see nations around the world working effectively together and taking their fair share of refugees, without leaving the greatest burdens on the poorest countries. We also continue to call on the Government to develop and publish a ten-year strategy for tackling the refugee crisis and human trafficking.”

The Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John, also welcomed the ruling. “I have argued previously that this policy was also immoral and indefensible, and hope the Government will now accept the judgment of the court.”

The director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, Sarah Teather, called on the Government to abandon the “cruel and unworkable policy” immediately.

“Forcibly removing people to Rwanda would achieve nothing except to violate their basic rights, trash the UK’s reputation on the international stage, and exacerbate fear and uncertainty among those seeking sanctuary here,” she said.

Responding to the ruling, however, the Prime Minister did not make any commitment to abandoning the policy. “We have seen today’s judgment and will now consider next steps,” he said. “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.

“Crucially, the Supreme Court — like the Court of Appeal and the High Court before it — has confirmed that the principle of sending illegal migrants to a safe third country for processing is lawful. This confirms the Government’s clear view from the outset.”

At a press conference later the same day, Mr Sunak said that the Government would “take the extra- ordinary step of introducing emergency legislation. This will enable Parliament to confirm that . . . Rwanda is safe.

“It will ensure that people cannot further delay flights by bringing systemic challenges in our domestic courts . . . and stop our policy being repeatedly blocked.

“But of course, we must be honest about the fact that even once Parliament has changed the law here at home . . . we could still face challenges from the European court of human rights in Strasbourg.

“I told the Parliament today that I am prepared to change our laws . . . and revisit those international relationships to remove the obstacles in our way.

“So let me tell everyone now I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights.”

A spokeswoman for the Rwandan government said: “This is ultimately a decision for the UK’s judicial system. However, we take issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum-seekers and refugees in terms of refoulement.”

The policy manager of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Alessandra Sciarra, said: “Today’s decision by the Supreme Court is a step in the right direction. We continue to advocate for a system which protects people seeking asylum and for fair and compassionate treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees. Today is a victory for kindness and fairness.”

Marieke Widmann, policy adviser at the Children's Society, described the ruling as “a significant win”.

“The plan, which risked sending children misidentified as adults 4,000 miles away without support, was a clear danger to their safety and wellbeing,” she said.

“While we are very pleased with today’s judicial decision, we remain deeply concerned by the Illegal Migration Act, which will leave many children extremely vulnerable. We urge the Government to reassess its policy towards children fleeing war, persecution and violence who arrive in the UK in search of safety, and ensure that they receive all the necessary protection and care.”

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