Five justices on the country’s top court ruled unanimously that asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda would be “at real risk of ill-treatment” because they could be returned to the conflict-wracked home countries they'd fled.
Sunak, who has pledged to stop migrants reaching Britain in small boats across the English Channel, said the ruling “was not the outcome we wanted" but vowed to press on with the plan.
He said the court had “confirmed that the principle of removing asylum-seekers to a safe third country is lawful,” even as they ruled Rwanda unsafe.
“There are further elements that they want additional certainty on, and noted that changes can be delivered in the future to address those issues," Sunak told lawmakers in the House of Commons. “The government has been working already on a new treaty with Rwanda and we will finalize that in light of today’s judgment.”
Refugee and human rights groups welcomed the court's decision and urged the government to drop the Rwanda plan. Charity ActionAid UK called it a vindication of “British values of compassion and dignity." Amnesty International urged the British government to “draw a line under a disgraceful chapter in the UK’s political history.”
Britain and Rwanda signed a deal in April 2022 to send some migrants who arrive in the UK as stowaways or in boats to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be processed and, if successful, they would stay.
Britain’s government argued that the policy would deter people from risking their lives crossing one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and would break the business model of people-smuggling gangs. Opposition politicians, refugee groups and human rights organizations said the plan was unethical and unworkable.
No one has yet been sent to the country as the plan was challenged in the courts.
Reading the decision, President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed said Rwanda had a history of misunderstanding its obligations toward refugees and couldn't be relied on to keep its promise not to mistreat asylum-seekers sent from Britain.
He cited the country’s poor human rights record, including enforced disappearances and torture, and said Rwanda practiced “refoulement”, sending migrants back to unsafe home countries.
The judges concluded there were “substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that asylum claims will not be determined properly, and that asylum-seekers will in consequence be at risk of being returned directly or indirectly to their country of origin."
“In that event, genuine refugees will face a real risk of ill-treatment in circumstances where they should not have been returned at all," they said.
The UK government has argued that while Rwanda was the site of a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in 1994, the country has since built a reputation for stability and economic progress.
Critics say that stability comes at the cost of political repression. The court's judgment noted multiple rights breaches, including political killings that had led UK police "to warn Rwandan nationals living in Britain of credible plans to kill them on the part of that state.” They said Rwanda has a 100% rejection record for asylum-seekers from war-torn countries including Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The Rwandan government insisted the country was a safe place for refugees.
“Rwanda is committed to its international obligations," government spokesperson Yolande Makolo wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "We have been recognized by the UNHCR and other international institutions for our exemplary treatment of refugees.”
The ruling leaves in tatters a policy that has cost the British government at least 140 million pounds ($175 million) in payments to Rwanda, without anyone being sent to that country. The first deportation flight was stopped at the last minute in June 2022, when the European Court of Human Rights intervened.
The case has gone to the High Court and the Court of Appeal, which ruled that the plan was unlawful because Rwanda is not a “safe third country.” That was challenged at the Supreme Court by the government, which held hearings on the case last month.
Sunak took comfort from the court's ruling that “the structural changes and capacity-building needed” to make Rwanda a safe country “may be delivered in the future."
Some UK Conservatives have called for more dramatic action. Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who was fired by Sunak on Monday, has said the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights and its court if the Rwanda plan was blocked.
Sunak suggested that might be possible, saying he was “prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships” if other routes failed.
Justice Reed stressed that it's not so simple. He said the "legal rule that refugees must not be returned to their country of origin … if their life or freedom” would be at risk is enshrined in multiple UK laws and international treaties, not just the European Convention.
Much of Europe and the US are struggling with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.
Though Britain receives fewer asylum applications than countries such as Italy, France or Germany, thousands of migrants from around the world travel to northern France each year in hopes of crossing the English Channel.
More than 27,300 migrants have crossed the Channel this year, with the year’s total on track to be fewer than the 46,000 who made the journey in 2022. The government says that shows its tough approach is working, though others cite factors including the weather.