Today, on 15 November 2023, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the UK government’s plan to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.
The decision confirms the Court of Appeal’s judgment from June this year.
The Supreme Court has dismissed the Home Secretary’s appeal on the key finding that there are substantial grounds to believe that asylum seekers removed to Rwanda by the UK government would face a real risk of ill treatment as a result of refoulement to another country.
What is refoulement?
Refoulement is a core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention which requires that refugees should not be returned to their country of origin, where they would face a real risk of persecution, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or indeed death. Importantly, this principle is enshrined into UK law through various Acts including the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc) Act 2004 and the Human Rights Act 1998.
How did the Supreme Court come to this decision?
Lord Reed and Lord Lloyd-Jones of the Supreme Court, who gave judgment, agreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum seekers. They criticised the preceding High Court decision which they said did not follow the correct approach in considering the evidence that had been presented.
The Supreme Court judges carefully considered the evidence, in particular the evidence provided by the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) about Rwanda. It found that Rwanda has a poor human rights record: indeed only a year before the plan was announced the UK government had itself criticised Rwanda for ‘extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture’.
In respect of Rwanda’s asylum system, it relied on evidence that Rwanda has serious and systematic defects in its asylum system and treatment of asylum seekers, including that:
- Rwanda’s asylum process itself does not work: it has only processed 152 claims between 2019 and June 2022  and claimants cannot access legal representation ;
- there is a ‘surprisingly’ high rate of rejections for individuals from conflict zones including 100% rejections for individuals from Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen which are common nationalities of asylum seekers in the UK ;
- there is clear evidence that Rwanda has practiced refoulement, which has continued since the Rwanda plan was agreed ;
- Rwanda previously had a similar plan with Israel (which was ruled unlawful by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2018). Within the Rwanda-Israel plan, Rwanda had agreed not to send individuals back to their country of origin but failed to comply with the agreement and in fact attempted to return over 100 Eritreans and Sudanese people to their countries of origin .
In the view of the Supreme Court, the evidence, taken as a whole, shows that there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that asylum claims will not be determined properly and that asylum seekers would risk being returned to their country of origin.
This is a very welcome judgment from the Supreme Court which will bring with it a great sigh of relief to asylum seekers in the UK threatened with removal to Rwanda, and others.
The Supreme Court has carefully considered the evidence and rightly concluded that the Rwandan asylum system is wholly inadequate and removing people seeking safety there will only put already vulnerable individuals at risk of greater harm.
With this judgment the government must now put this unlawful plan aside and focus on promptly and fairly processing the claims of asylum seekers in the UK.