Rishi Sunak’s key immigration policy has been dealt a blow after the UK’s highest court rejected the government’s plans to deport people seeking asylum to Rwanda.
Five judges at the supreme court unanimously upheld an appeal court ruling that found there was a real risk of deported refugees having their claims in the east African country wrongly assessed or being returned to their country of origin to face persecution.
The ruling undermines one of the prime minister’s key pledges: to “stop the boats”. The government claimed that the £140m Rwanda scheme would be a key deterrent for growing numbers of asylum seekers reaching the UK via small boats travelling across the Channel, a claim that refugee charities have rejected.
Reading out the judgment, Lord Reed, the president of the supreme court, said the judges agreed unanimously with the court of appeal ruling that there was a real risk of claims being wrongly determined in Rwanda, resulting in asylum seekers being wrongly returned to their country of origin.
He pointed to crucial evidence from the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, which highlighted the failure of a similar deportation agreement between Israel and Rwanda.
The ruling came the day after the sacked home secretary, Suella Braverman, released an incendiary letter accusing the prime minister of breaking an agreement to insert clauses into UK law that would have “blocked off” legal challenges under the European convention on human rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act.
Braverman said Sunak had no “credible plan B” and added: “If we lose in the supreme court, an outcome that I have consistently argued we must be prepared for, you will have wasted a year and an act of parliament, only to arrive back at square one.”
A meeting of hard-right Conservative MPs on Wednesday morning to consider the judgment was expected to back calls to leave the ECHR.
Sir John Hayes, a close ally of Braverman, said on Tuesday that in the event of losing, ministers should table a narrow piece of legislation to enact the Rwanda plan before Christmas, and later include withdrawing from the ECHR in the Tory election manifesto.
Reacting to the ruling, Sunak said the government would consider its next steps and claimed there was a “plan B”, despite Braverman’s criticisms.
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.”
The home secretary, James Cleverly, said: “Our partnership with Rwanda, while bold and ambitious, is just one part of a vehicle of measures to stop the boats and tackle illegal migration.
“But clearly there is an appetite for this concept. Across Europe, illegal migration is increasing and governments are following our lead: Italy, Germany and Austria are all exploring models similar to our partnership with Rwanda.”
The judgment will raise serious questions about expenditure on the scheme. More than £140m has already been paid to the Rwandan government. The government has refused to disclose a further breakdown of costs on the scheme and on legal fees.
A spokesperson for the Rwandan government said: “The money has been already allocated to a number of government projects.”
Reed said the legal test in the case was whether there were substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of being sent back to the countries they came from, where they could face ill treatment.
“In the light of the evidence which I have summarised, the court of appeal concluded that there were such grounds. We are unanimously of the view that they were entitled to reach that conclusion. Indeed, having been taken through the evidence ourselves, we agree with their conclusion,” he said.
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was a victory for men, women and children who simply wanted to be safe.
He said: “The plan goes against who we are as a country that stands up for those less fortunate than us and for the values of compassion, fairness and humanity. The government should be focusing on creating a functioning asylum system that allows people who seek safety in the UK a fair hearing on our soil and provides safe routes so they don’t have to take dangerous journeys.”
Toufique Hossain of Duncan Lewis solicitors, one of the lawyers representing asylum seekers who brought the legal challenge, said: “This is a victory for our brave clients who stood up to an inhumane policy. It is also a victory for the rule of law itself and the separation of powers, despite the noise. It is a timely reminder that governments must operate within the law. We hope that now our clients are able to dream of a better, safer future.”
Sonya Sceats, the chief executive of Freedom from Torture, said: “This is a victory for reason and compassion. We are delighted that the supreme court has affirmed what caring people already knew: the UK government’s ‘cash for humans’ deal with Rwanda is not only deeply immoral, but it also flies in the face of the laws of this country.
“The stakes of this case could not have been higher. Every day in our therapy rooms we see the terror that this scheme has inflicted on survivors of torture who have come to the UK seeking sanctuary.”
Steve Smith, the chief executive of the refugee charity Care4Calais, a claimant in the initial legal challenge, said the judgment was “a victory for humanity”.
He added: “This grubby, cash-for-people deal was always cruel and immoral but, most importantly, it is unlawful. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on this cruel policy, and the only receipts the government has are the pain and torment inflicted on the thousands of survivors of war, torture and modern slavery they have targeted with it.
“Today’s judgment should bring this shameful mark on the UK’s history to a close. Never again should our government seek to shirk our country’s responsibility to offer sanctuary to those caught up in horrors around the world.”
Care4Calais continues to support claimants in the case.