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Rwanda migration plan: What's the UK government's next move?

Rosie Birchard
November 16, 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is pressing ahead with a plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda after the UK's top court deemed it unlawful. Observers explain what the government's next move could be.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with "stop the boats" sign
UK PM Rishi Sunak vows to keep up efforts to 'stop the boats' despite the UK's top court ruling his Rwanda plan was unlawfulImage: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Judgment day has come and gone for the UK government's flagship scheme to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Supreme Court justices unanimously deemed the policy unlawful based on "deficiencies" in Rwanda's asylum system and risks that people may be sent back to countries where they risk persecution.

But within hours, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced plans for "emergency legislation" to get deportation flights to Rwanda flying from next spring. Experts told DW the stage has now been set for fresh legal battles likely to run throughout next year as Britain's ruling Conservative party fights to stay in power ahead of upcoming elections.

Deportation flight to Rwanda
Deportation flights to Rwanda were initially blocked following a European court's interim measureImage: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

What is the UK's Rwanda plan?

Last April, London and Kigali inked a deal under which Britain would send asylum-seekers to Rwanda, where their claims would be processed within the Rwandan asylum system. Successful applicants would stay in the country and the Rwandan government would have the right to deport those who were deemed not to qualify for protection.

The ruling Conservative party says the scheme is designed to deter people from making dangerous journeys to the UK in the first place. "When people know that if they come here illegally, they won't get to stay then they will stop coming altogether," Sunak told Parliament on Wednesday.

Wednesday's top court judgment was the latest in a series of legal twists and turns for the deal that has been a political issue in the UK for a year and a half.

"What the judge said is that Rwanda is not a safe country because its process of determining whether someone is a refugee or not is inadequate," Peter Walsh, a senior researcher at Oxford University's Migration Observatory, told DW. "That means that there would be a risk of failing to identify refugees and then a risk of them being returned to their countries of origin where they will face persecution."

Rwanda rejected the assessment.

"We do take issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum-seekers and refugees," government spokesperson Yolande Makolo told DW in written comments. "Rwanda and the UK have been working together to ensure the integration of relocated asylum seekers into Rwandan society. Rwanda is committed to its international obligations."

UK court rules on 'deficiencies' in Rwanda deportation plan

Deportation flights by spring under 'emergency' laws?

After what looked like a political blow to his government, Sunak presented a two-fold plan B in a press conference: First, a goal of upgrading the memorandum of understanding with Rwanda into an international treaty to address some of the court's concerns about migrant safety. Then, more controversially, plans to effectively override the Supreme Court's ruling.

"We will take the extraordinary step of introducing emergency legislation. This will enable Parliament to confirm that with our new treaty, 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," he told reporters.

The UK prime minister argues the move is necessary to reduce irregular migrant arrivals on the country's shores. "The British people's patience can only be stretched so thin, and they expect the boats to be stopped," he said.

A YouGov poll published Tuesday showed that 48% of UK adults surveyed back the government's Rwanda plan while 35% oppose it.

Refugee rights campaigners swiftly slammed Sunak's announcement.

"This morning's ruling by the UK Supreme Court was clear," James Wilson, director of the nonprofit group Detention Action, told DW. "Any policy which can only be enacted by tearing up decades of hard-won human rights protections must be considered deeply sinister."

Migrants try to cross the English Channel
The UK government hopes to deter people from coming to the country to claim asylumImage: Gareth Fuller/empics/picture alliance

Can the UK government overrule the country's top court?

Joelle Grogan, a legal expert based at King's College London, told DW the plan for emergency legislation could work on paper.

"You can absolutely introduce law very quickly," she said. "If the government introduced a piece of legislation which says Rwanda is a safe country, then no courts in the world can overturn it."

Still, Grogan predicted that in practice, political roadblocks lie ahead since the new law would need backing from both chambers of the UK Parliament.

"The problem with saying Rwanda is a safe country … is that the weight of evidence that was so convincing to the UK Supreme Court is still there," she said. "We have a lot of legal experts in the House of Lords that are very likely to stop or slow or delay the act from going through.

"If Rishi cannot convince both houses of parliament that this is necessary, important and has to be fast-tracked, it's not going to be law any time soon," she said.

Protester stands outside UK supreme court
Protesters gathered outside the UK Supreme Court on WednesdayImage: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Photo/picture alliance

Nick Rollason, a senior immigration lawyer with London-based law firm Kingsley Napley, said he expects fresh court cases challenging whether the law is compatible with human rights obligations if the plan passes swiftly.

"It's going to cause all sorts of frictions and problems, all of which will be politicized in an election year in the UK," he said.

Last year, an emergency order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg grounded a UK flight bound for Rwanda. "It would pretty much be a rerun of the same thing," Rollason told DW.

He said this will likely reignite a debate within Britain's ruling Conservative party about whether the UK should quit the ECHR, something Sunak signaled he was ready to do on Wednesday.

"If the Strasburg court chooses to intervene against the expressed wishes of Parliament, I am prepared to do what is necessary to get flights off," the prime minister told reporters.

Rollason warned that could have wide-ranging implications, "including on the UK's standing in the world and the UK's ability to make and sign international agreements." 

Asked whether Rwanda flights would be taking off next year as planned, he said: "I personally think it's very unlikely unless the UK wants to flout not only British law but international law."

Italian and Albanian prime ministers meet to sign migration deal
Italy plans to open asylum processing centers in Albania under a new dealImage: Filippo Attil/Chigi Press Office/Zumapress/picture alliance

Are other European countries mulling Rwanda-style schemes?

While UK Supreme Court justices said "deficiencies" in Rwanda's asylum system made the plan unlawful, they did not reject the principle of sending asylum-seekers to safe third countries.

The British government claims some countries in the European Union — which the UK left in 2020 — are now considering following its lead with Rwanda-style schemes. Italy recently agreed on plans to set up asylum processing centers in Albania and Germany is also reviewing whether claims can be examined abroad.

But while Brussels-based researcher Andreina De Leo said there is a clear "political intention" in the EU to "copy and paste similar arrangements," she said the bloc's rules limit how far member countries can outsource protection responsibilities. Neither Italy nor Germany are planning to send asylum-seekers to another country permanently, as outlined in the original UK-Rwanda deal.

Edited by: Sean Sinico