This morning the UK’s Supreme Court said deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda would be illegal on the grounds that even genuine refugees would be at risk of being sent back to their countries of origin.
The court cited the Human Rights Act, the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Refugee Convention and the UK’s own Court of Appeal.
So what? The unanimous ruling effectively kills off Rishi Sunak’s flagship immigration policy, forces his government to seek a plan B if still determined to halt cross-Channel migration in small boats and increases the chances of a push by right-wingers in his party to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Sunak will also have to explain
- why he invested so much political capital in a scheme criticised from the start as performative and legally threadbare;
- why taxpayers had to spend £140 million on it without a single deportation;
- why his government has not invested the time and money on better relations and cooperation with European immigration authorities instead.
Fortunately the ruling coincides with a new study of migration and its attendant myths, How Migration Really Works, by Professor Hein de Haas of the University of Amsterdam, which should be falling out of briefcases all over Westminster. A selection:
Myth 1: Border restrictions reduce migration. Not only is this false, but deterrence measures and tough border policies are likely to have the opposite effect. They tend to incentivise preemptive migration and push temporary migrants into permanent settlements out of fear of future restrictions, while driving migration underground and diverting geographical routes to more dangerous and deadly options.
By the numbers:
606,000 – UK record high net migration in 2022.
45,755 – people crossed the Channel in 2022, up from 8466 in 2020.
175,000 – people waiting for an initial asylum decision in the UK as of August 2023.
Myth 2: Smuggling and trafficking cause illegal migration. Instead, smuggling is a reaction to border control, and is about service delivery whereby migrants and refugees voluntarily pay money to cross the borders safely. Studies have shown most smugglers are small operators and often former migrants themselves – different from trafficking “criminal gangs exploiting the vulnerable”, as Sunak put it in an article with Italian PM Giorgia Meloni last week. Without legal migration channels, border controls only increase migrants’ dependence on smugglers.
Myth 3: Borders are beyond control. It’s more about immigration systems being partly dysfunctional with a large gap between the demand for foreign workers and the number of legal immigration channels to accommodate it. Despite the rhetoric, de Haas notes, UK data shows that the government has turned a blind eye towards the employment of illegal migrant workers who fill labour shortages.
Myth 4: Immigration undermines the welfare state: though false, this belief played an important role in the 2016 Brexit vote. UK data shows that the net fiscal impact of immigration is negligible – or even positive. This is because there is widespread tolerance for migrants to work illegally (and in key welfare sectors of healthcare, care etc.). and thus they pay taxes without having access to benefits.
How we got here: The deal was first struck with Rwanda in April 2022 by former home secretary Priti Patel. Its enactment was soon blocked by the European Court of Human Rights and in December it was deemed largely lawful by the High Court, under Sunak. This outcome was then overturned in June 2023, when the Court of Appeal ruled Rwanda was not a safe place to process asylum claims.
Last thought. There will be a range of responses to the court’s ruling.
- One is frustration that an elected government (albeit on a minority of the popular vote) cannot do exactly as it pleases with whomever it pleases.
- Another is gratitude for a process of sober legal reflection that seems to be working to protect human rights and check the inevitable envelope-pushing of web-driven populism.
A third is that the idea of deporting asylum seekers to a Central African dictatorship known for warmongering with its neighbours and sending hit squads after its critics was cruel and absurd on its face and far-fetched from the start; that for an administration with Suella Braverman as its home secretary and a habit of blaming so many of its difficulties on migrants in inflatables, it was self-parody; that this ruling mercifully euthanises a scheme so misbegotten that it became a symbol of intellectual exhaustion for a government already exhausted by the fantasy of Brexit.
Read more from political editor Catherine Neilan: Rishi Sunak managed just a day of defining the headlines. After last night’s poison pen letter from former home secretary Suella Braverman – timed to land hours before today’s Supreme Court decision on Rwanda and viewed more than 30 million times on X – he is once again battling members of his own party.
aLSO, in the nibs
NEW from tortoise
Rory Stewart on David Cameron’s return and Suella Braverman’s sacking
Rishi Sunak has sacked his home secretary and appointed a former prime minister as foreign secretary. Rory Stewart, former cabinet minister and author of ‘Politics on the Edge’, joins the Tortoise team to discuss that and the situation in Gaza.