UK government's Rwanda plan was never a silver bullet

Resettlement scheme would not have eliminated channel crossings, even if it had been approved by judges

Demonstrators hold placards while protesting against the government's policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda outside the UK Supreme Court in London. EPA
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The UK Supreme Court’s ruling on the Rwanda policy has big implications for the country's asylum policy.

The policy – known formally as the Migration and Economic Development Partnership – was introduced to parliament in April 2022 by then-prime minister Boris Johnson as part of a plan to deter migrants arriving in the UK by small boat. Johnson told parliament that “anyone entering the UK illegally – as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 – may now be relocated to Rwanda”.

Under the scheme, the UK’s legal responsibilities for such people would end once they had been relocated to the East African country. They would not have been able to receive refugee status in the UK.

Instead, they would have been invited to apply for asylum in Rwanda and have their claims processed there, within Rwanda’s asylum system. If such asylum applicants were successful, they would have been offered protection in Rwanda, with no option to return to the UK.

The policy was challenged on the basis that the government of Rwanda was unable to ensure that asylum seekers were protected from refoulement – that is, that refugees would not be sent back to countries where they could be at risk of persecution.

The Court of Appeal and, today, the Supreme Court agreed that the UK government could not be sure that Rwanda would protect refugees from refoulement, making the UK policy unlawful.

The Supreme Court decision has big policy implications, but the biggest ones are not about whether planes leave for Rwanda or not. The Rwanda policy was never going to be a silver bullet that would completely end channel crossings. It may well have had some deterrent effect, but there was always a good chance the deterrent effect would have been small.

The government was not very transparent about what Rwanda’s capacity to receive asylum seekers actually was, and if – as many expected – Rwanda dealt with a small fraction of the people crossing in small boats, the deterrent effect may not have been substantial anyway.

Perhaps the biggest impact of the Supreme Court decision is that the government may decide to delay fully enacting its recent asylum legislation – the Illegal Migration Act 2023 – under which migrants and refugees who enter illegally and claim asylum would no longer be able to get a decision on their claim and would instead be detained and removed to safe third countries.

The Supreme Court decision has big policy implications, but the biggest ones are not about whether planes leave for Rwanda or not

That policy really relies on there being safe third countries – not just Rwanda – to send people who have claimed asylum but who haven’t had a decision to determine whether they’re refugees. However, Rwanda was the government’s only option – all of the government’s eggs were, essentially, in that basket – which the Supreme Court has crushed.

The Illegal Migration Act, if enacted, would have far-reaching consequences for the UK’s asylum system and the people who go through it.

Does the Rwanda decision stop the government from being able to achieve Rishi Sunak’s promise to stop channel crossings? Not necessarily, because it was always unlikely that the government could have eliminated channel crossings entirely, even if the Rwanda policy went ahead.

This is not solely because of failures of enforcement policy, but because “stopping the boats” is a Sisyphean task and profoundly difficult to achieve.

And even if many fewer boats arrive, evidence suggests that other routes may open up. Many policies can have some impact at the margins, and all have their limits. Ultimately, there’s no single policy that can reduce channel crossings on its own, and the Rwanda deal was no exception to this.

Dr Peter Walsh is a senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford

Published: November 15, 2023, 5:09 PM