On Monday, the British government begins its appeal of a Supreme Court decision that determined a policy to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, opening the latest chapter in a legal saga that has played out since the highly contentious plan was announced in 2022.
The policy, which Britain’s Conservative government has maintained would act as a deterrent to the dangerous boat crossings made by thousands of asylum seekers across the English Channel, would allow the government to send anyone arriving by these types of irregular means to Rwanda.
The plan has been repeatedly challenged by rights groups, so far halting any planned deportations. Here’s what to know as the new appeal gets underway.
The Rwanda policy was first announced last year.
The policy was first announced by Priti Patel, then the home secretary, in April 2022 in partnership with Rwanda. It planned for people arriving in Britain by “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods,” such as on small boats that cross the English Channel, to be deported to Rwanda to have their asylum processed there.
In return, the British government would invest tens of millions in the central African nation. In the months since, the government has repeatedly vowed to implement the policy, despite widespread criticism, heralding it as a deterrent to asylum seekers attempting to travel to Britain.
On Friday, ahead of the appeal being heard in the Supreme Court, a spokesperson for the Home Office said that while it awaits the decision, earlier judgments made the government “confident in our case.”
“Illegal migration is a complex, global issue, and one which requires fresh solutions,” the spokesperson said. “Our Migration Partnership with Rwanda offers just that, and we are ready to defend it in the courts.”
The Supreme Court ruled in June that the policy is unlawful.
The policy faced a number of legal challenges before making its way to the Supreme Court earlier this year. This appeal is to a case involving claims brought by five asylum seekers from Syria, Sudan, Vietnam and Iran who traveled to Britain in small boats — and, in one instance, by truck — and were informed that they would be sent to Rwanda.
They challenged the legality of the plan, and the Supreme Court’s June judgment, which reversed an earlier decision by the High Court, was seen as a major victory by rights groups. The government swiftly announced plans to challenge the Supreme Court decision, and that appeal is being heard this week.
It could be weeks or months before a decision is announced. But rights groups; the U.N. refugee agency, U.N.H.C.R.; and opposition politicians have denounced the policy from its inception, and many have vowed to continue to fight it through all available means.
So far, no one has been sent to Rwanda under the plan.
But the British government paid the Rwandan government at least £140 million — or more than $170 million — last year alone as part of the arrangement, according to the Home Office’s annual report. And despite the June ruling that the plan was unlawful, asylum seekers in Britain are still receiving notices that they are to be deported.
Rights groups say the policy violates international law, and many have argued that Rwanda’s troubled human rights record makes it unsuitable for asylum seekers.
Steve Smith, the chief executive of the British charity Care4Calais, which supports refugees and brought an earlier legal challenge against the policy, said in a written statement that the “deficiencies in Rwanda’s asylum system” that the court based its June ruling on “cannot be wished away.”
Gillian Triggs, U.N.H.C.R.’s assistant high commissioner for protection, said in a statement last year that the organization was “firmly opposed to arrangements that seek to transfer refugees and asylum seekers to third countries in the absence of sufficient safeguards.”
The government says the policy is key to stopping small boat arrivals.
The plan is part of a package of measures that includes the Illegal Migration Bill that makes way for a number of changes for asylum seekers in Britain.
The bill, which has passed through Parliament and will soon become law, declares that anyone who arrives in Britain through “illegal” means will have their asylum claim deemed “inadmissible.” The bill makes provisions for them to be detained indefinitely and then removed either to their home country or a “safe third country.” This is where the Rwanda plan would come in.
In theory, the policy would extend to nearly everyone arriving in the country seeking asylum, not just those arriving by boat. But there is little to suggest the plan will be an effective deterrent, despite the fact that it has raised anxiety and alarm among an already vulnerable group of people mostly fleeing war and persecution.
Small boat arrivals make up less than half of all asylum claims. In 2022, government data shows, 40,302 asylum claims were made by people who arrived in small boats out of a total of 89,398 total applications. An analysis of that data by the Refugee Council showed that two-thirds of those who arrived last year would most likely have their asylum applications approved and be permitted to stay in Britain.
Migration has become increasingly politicized.
Ahead of an expected general election next year, the governing Conservative Party has ramped up a policy toward migrants and asylum seekers that has long been described by rights groups as hostile, introducing the Illegal Migration Bill and using hotels, barges and former military bases to house asylum seekers.
Britain’s current home secretary, Suella Braverman, has been the source of some of the harshest rhetoric. In 2022, she told the Conservative Party’s annual conference that it was her “dream” to see a flight depart for Rwanda, and after the Supreme Court decision earlier this summer, she vowed to do “whatever it takes” to see the policy put in place.
Like her predecessor, Ms. Braverman has toured potential housing for asylum seekers in Rwanda, and she has reiterated her party’s stance that the plan “will act as a powerful deterrent.”
The opposition Labour Party has denounced the plan, calling the policy unethical. Yvette Cooper, the party member responsible for home affairs, has repeatedly dismissed the policy as “unworkable, unethical and extortionate.”