UK top court says a plan to send migrants to Rwanda is illegal. The government still wants to do it

A protester stands outside the Supreme Court in London, Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Britain's highest court is set to rule Wednesday, Nov. 15 on whether the government's plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda is legal, delivering a boost or a blow to a contentious central policy of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's administration. Five justices on the U.K. Supreme Court will deliver judgment in the government's attempt to overturn a lower court ruling that blocked deportations. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON — The British government said Wednesday it will still try to send some migrants on a one-way trip to Rwanda, despite the U.K. Supreme Court ruling that the contentious plan is unlawful because asylum-seekers would not be safe in the African country.

In a major blow to one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ‘s key policies, the country’s top court ruled 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 and send the first deportation flights to Rwanda by next spring.

He said the court had “confirmed that the principle of removing asylum-seekers to a safe third country is lawful,” even as it ruled Rwanda unsafe.

Sunak said the government would seal a legally binding treaty with Rwanda that would address the court’s concerns, and would then pass a law declaring Rwanda a safe country.

Sunak suggested that if legal challenges to the plan continued, he was prepared to consider leaving international human rights treaties — a move that would draw strong opposition and international criticism.

Britain and Rwanda signed a deal in April 2022 to send migrants who arrive in the U.K. 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 argues that the policy will 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. No one has yet been sent to the country as the plan was challenged in the courts.

Opposition politicians, refugee groups and human rights organizations say the plan is unethical and unworkable. Charity ActionAid U.K. called the Supreme Court ruling a vindication of “British values of compassion and dignity.” Amnesty International said the government should “draw a line under a disgraceful chapter in the U.K.’s political history.”

Announcing the unanimous decision, President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed said Rwanda had a history of misunderstanding its obligations toward refugees and of “refoulement” — sending claimants back to the country they had sought protection from.

The judges concluded “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,” they said.

The U.K. 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.

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