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By Shramana Majumdar, MA International Studies and Diplomacy

The UK Supreme Court determined on November 15th that the proposed migration of asylum-seekers from the UK to Rwanda under the Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP) would violate both international and domestic law.

Last April, the ‘Rwanda Plan’ was announced by then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to dissuade asylum seekers from journeying the 32km to the UK across the English Channel using ‘dangerous’ methods such as inflatable boats.   

The plan called for deporting everyone who had entered Britain without proper documentation to Rwanda after January 1st, 2022. This is roughly 6,400 kilometres away and was done so that their claims could be evaluated there. The UK government shared that the average cost of sending each asylum applicant would be £169,000.

The scheme faced legal challenges after it was announced. The Supreme Court hearing took place from October 9th to October 11th 2023, with a ruling made on November 15th. 

The President of the Supreme Court stated that all the judges agreed with the Court of Appeal’s finding that there existed the possibility of applications being incorrectly processed in Rwanda, leading to the unjust repatriation of asylum seekers to their home country.

As “stopping the boats” was one of Rishi Sunak’s top five pledges after he became Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak and the Conservative party pushed the flagship policy on immigration, highlighting the growing number of people arriving in Britain using boats.

Britain has spent more than £3 billion annually handling asylum applications. A significant portion of this money goes towards housing immigrants while their claims are being handled.

Politicians and civil society organisations applauded the verdict last week, while Sunak has pledged to continue his efforts in handling refugees. The UK would not be able to carry out the proposal legally, but Rishi Sunak has since lamented the situation in a statement which said that the administration will think about what to do next.

“This was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats,” Sunak stated. The judgement brought up serious concerns regarding the scheme’s expenditures. 

The Rwandan government received over £140 million in payment and declined to provide a more detailed breakdown of the programmes and solicitor’s fees.

The ruling, according to the Supreme Court President, should not be seen as a political statement because it is solely grounded in UK law, considering the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other relevant principles. By enshrining the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in UK law in 1998, English courts are now able to uphold the rights that the convention guarantees. “There are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment because of refoulement to their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda,” the judges wrote in the verdict. 

The ruling confirmed that Rwanda entered the deal with the UK voluntarily. It provided guarantees to protect persons who were sent there. As a claimant in the case and the CEO of the refugee charity Care4Calais, Steve Smith called the ruling a victory for humanity.

The contentious agreement between Britain and Rwanda to ship migrants and asylum seekers drew a lot of criticism in the UK. Opposition parties, activists, and the UN refugee agency all called for the cancellation of the multi-million-pound arrangement.

Suella Braverman, the former Home Secretary, supported the embattled Rwanda Plan. Braverman chastised Sunak for his handling of the case in a letter that was made public on the day of the decision. She called for the UK to leave the ECHR if the Rwanda plan was blocked. 

Frank Habineza, President of the opposition Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, said the deal was not sustainable. Opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, a fierce critic of Kagame, also highlighted the economic pressures facing the country following the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is uncertain how Rwanda would support relocated migrants with their personal development and employment,” she said.

Although some have hailed the accord, Rwandans have mostly kept quiet about it. 

Tom Mulisa, a constitutional law instructor at the University of Rwanda, told AFP: “It is a good thing that Rwanda has positioned itself in this way, as a way of contributing to solv[ing] the immigration crisis that is affecting the whole world.”

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