On November 15th, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stood at a podium reading ‘Stop The Boats’, and defended his Rwanda immigration policy, vowing to push ahead despite the setback of yet another adverse ruling from the Supreme Court.
The ‘Rwanda Plan’ was created to tackle concerns regarding the increasing level of illegal immigration into the UK. Conservatives especially are concerned by the influx of asylum seekers reaching the UK via small boats. According to the government, the year ending June 2023 saw 52,350 ‘irregular migrants’ entering the UK, a 17% increase on the year ending June 2022. 85% of these arrivals came on small boats over the Channel. With the death toll of asylum seekers crossing the Channel amounting to nearly 300 between 1999 and 2020, pressure to resolve the issue mounts from all sides of the political spectrum.
With the death toll of asylum seekers crossing the Channel amounting to nearly 300 between 1999 and 2020, pressure to resolve the issue mounts from all sides of the political spectrum.
In April 2022, Boris Johnson’s government featuring Priti Patel as Home Secretary proposed the Rwanda policy. This outlined the logistics of deporting asylum seekers who had arrived illegally to a ‘safe third country’, in this case, Rwanda. The policy would ensure that asylum seeker claims could be processed in Rwanda. Successful claimants would retain the right to remain in Rwanda; unsuccessful claimants would be deported back to the country from which they left.
Notable Conservative MPs, including ex-Prime Minister Theresa May, outlined misgivings on the grounds of ‘legality, practicality and efficacy’, but the government remained determined to implement the policy.
The UK has given Rwanda £140 million as an initial payment to prepare for the arrival of asylum seekers. The premise for this initial outgoing is based on the belief that in the long term, the UK would save money by reducing their current expenditure on illegal immigrants, such as hotel accommodation and border control. Currently, however, Rwanda has not received any immigrants from the UK.
In June 2022, after a last-minute High Court ruling, a plane holding seven asylum seekers was blocked from taking off to Rwanda. The government took the decision to the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the Rwanda policy was unlawful. Outraged, the Conservative government challenged this ruling, and the case was sent to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Conservative supporters of the policy, earlier this month the Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that the Rwanda policy was unlawful.
The Supreme Court set out a criteria, outlining the requirements that a ‘third country’ must meet. In order for the country to be considered ‘safe’ it must ensure: life and liberty are not threatened, non-refoulment is respected, freedom from torture is upheld, and that there remains a possibility to be considered for refugee status.
The judgment given by the Supreme Court on the 15th November 2023 presents two crucial arguments in opposition to the Rwanda policy. Firstly, there is a risk that asylum claims ‘would not be properly determined by Rwandan authorities’. Secondly, there is a risk posed by refoulment, meaning that there is a danger that asylum seekers could be returned to a country in which they may be subject to persecution.
The Supreme Court notes that ‘Rwanda had a history of refoulment’ and ‘defects’ in its asylum system. The Supreme Court also points to an incident in 2013 – where asylum seekers moved from Israel to Rwanda ‘suffered serious breaches of their rights under the Refugee Convention’.
Although not the one to present the Rwanda policy, Rishi Sunak holds the baton of his predecessors in his hands as he fiercely continues the plan to ‘stop the boats’. While Labour leader, Keir Starmer, brands the proposals a ‘ridiculous, pathetic spectacle’, Sunak reiterates the Brexiteer aversion to foreign control. Upholding the Rwanda policy, Sunak expresses his frustration that a ‘foreign court’ (in this case, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)) could impede UK immigration control.
Ironically, the European Convention on Human Rights is not so much a ‘foreign law’ as a UK law given it was largely written by British Civil Servants and lawyers, and was adopted into UK law by the 1998 Human Rights Act. Furthermore, the initial Rwanda legislation was also in breach of ‘three British laws passed by Parliament over the last 30 years’.
Sunak asserts a desire for UK sovereignty reminiscent of the Factortame controversy, a need for total UK control that seeped through much of the Brexit campaign. This inclination towards UK precedence has become integral to Conservative Party ideology and therefore Sunak finds himself in a predicament. Does Sunak honour the party ideology or accept the insurmountable legal barriers and relinquish the policy?
With significant pressure from the right of his party to ‘regain control’ and with Brexit accomplished, Sunak risks humiliation if the government once again finds themselves subordinate to European law. Politically, Sunak faces a blow if unable to enforce the policy of such symbolic importance to the Conservative values of UK sovereignty and control. Legally, however, Sunak also faces obstacles in implementing this totemic policy.
Politically, Sunak faces a blow if unable to enforce the policy of such symbolic importance to the Conservative values of UK sovereignty and control. Legally, however, Sunak also faces obstacles in implementing this totemic policy.
Sunak makes reference to emergency legislation and overcoming European law if necessary, however, the validity of these plans remains dubious. Sunak’s strategy of addressing the semantics of the Rwanda policy by naming it a ‘safe’ country would be confronted with several issues. Firstly, the legislation must pass the scrutiny of both the House of Commons and the Lords, which is unlikely to occur. Secondly, the UK would then be in breach of the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, and therefore fail to comply with International Law.
While the sacking of Suella Braverman seemed a step towards moderation, Sunak must still appease the right of the Party. With an election upcoming, Sunak must consider: what do the voters want? With a mandate to leave the EU, Sunak may feel reassured to continue on the trajectory of UK independence. Equally, the policy has received enormous backlash on the basis of its inhumane approach to asylum seekers. It will be up to Sunak to decide whether to prioritise UK sovereignty or accept the legal barriers enshrining fundamental human rights.