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KIGALI, RWANDA – MARCH 18: British Home Secretary Suella Braverman visits Bwiza Riverside Houses in Kigali, Rwanda on March 18, 2023. (Photo by Cyril Ndegeya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Court rules Rwanda is not a safe country to send asylum seekers

Court rules Rwanda is not a safe country to send asylum seekers

KIGALI, RWANDA – MARCH 18: British Home Secretary Suella Braverman visits Bwiza Riverside Houses in Kigali, Rwanda on March 18, 2023. (Photo by Cyril Ndegeya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The UK government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has collided with reality in the form of an appeals court ruling that it would not be safe.

Long stories short

  • The French police officer who shot a teenager was detained on homicide charges. 
  • Cancer experts said Aspartame, the sweetener used in Diet Coke, was to be declared a carcinogen by the WHO. 
  • Zac Goldsmith resigned as a UK government minister after being accused of undermining a Commons investigation into Boris Johnson.

Unlawfully big adventure

The British government’s plan to send small boat migrants to Rwanda was blocked yesterday after a three-judge court of appeal ruled the East African country was not a safe place to process asylum claims. The case is now likely to go to the Supreme Court. 

So what? This is a thumping rebuke for a politically inspired plan to entrust asylum seekers and their claims to a police state. Rishi Sunak’s promise to “stop the boats” – or even implement the small print of passing news laws to stop small boats – is looking less feasible by the day.  

Not safe. The judges ruled two to one that Rwanda was not a safe place to send migrants because of deficiencies in its asylum system, which they said created a “real risk” of asylum seekers being returned to countries where they faced inhumane treatment and persecution. 

The ruling also found Home Office officials were too ready to accept “unevidenced” assurances from the Rwandan government, in part because they were in a rush.

The judgement overturns a December ruling in the High Court, which found that the policy was lawful in general (but said specific cases should be reconsidered). However…

  • the court rejected the other grounds of appeal, including a claim that the government’s policy would breach the UN Refugee Convention; and
  • it didn’t rule out the possibility of refugees being removed to a genuinely safe third country. 

Translation: No one is being put on a flight to Rwanda anytime soon. That doesn’t mean they never will be. 

Suella Braverman, the home secretary, told MPs that the judgement was “disappointing” and described the current asylum system as “madness”. Squint at the numbers and she’s not wrong.  

Madness, by the numbers

172,758 – people waiting for an initial asylum decision in the UK as of March 2023. 

£169,000 – cost per person of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, according to a government estimate.

£140 million – money already paid to Rwanda. 

2 – UK home secretaries who have visited Rwanda to promote the deal.

0 – asylum seekers sent from the UK to Rwanda since the deal was announced in April 2022. 

Fighting talk. Sunak said he disagreed with yesterday’s ruling and that the government should decide who comes to the UK, not “criminal gangs” of people traffickers. But as Braverman’s top civil servant wrote to her predecessor last year, the deterrent effect of the Rwanda scheme isn’t proven, much less value for money.

If Sunak’s object was really to put traffickers out of business, experts say he’d do better to 

  • create more safe and legal routes for asylum seekers;
  • speed up the processing of their claims (of the 172,758 claimants waiting for a decision at the end of March three quarters of them had been waiting more than six months); and
  • seek a comprehensive returns deal with France and the EU.

As it is… The ruling threatens not only the Rwanda plan but also the government’s illegal migration bill, which is facing strong cross-party opposition in the House of Lords. The bill bars people who come to the UK illegally from claiming asylum and puts a legal obligation on the Home Office to detain and deport them. It hinges on having “safe third countries” to send them to. 

That creates a problem. “If there are no safe third countries accepting the UK’s asylum seekers, the core idea behind the policy can’t be implemented,” says Peter William Walsh of the Oxford Migration Observatory. “In essence, all the eggs are in one basket and this basket is looking fragile.”

Big picture: The Rwanda policy is a costly mess. If Sunak’s goal is to outsource asylum claims processing, it’s failing. If it’s to present himself as someone who gets things done, it’s failing. If it’s to rally Conservative voter support ahead of an election by blaming “lefty lawyers”, that looks shaky too. In an audience of mainly Conservative voters for the BBC’s Question Time last night, not one person raised a hand in support of the plan. 

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Photograph Cyril Ndegeya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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Photograph Tom Brenner for The Washington Post via Getty Images