Day of reckoning for UK's migrant solution as Supreme Court to rule on Rwanda deportations

Britain has been seeking to deport people who arrive illegally on small boats

Migrants rescued from a boat in the English Channel land on Dungeness Beach in Kent, Britain. EPA
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For more than 18 months, the British government has been championing its policy to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda in a bid to deter people from arriving on UK shores on small boats.

Despite losing a series of heated court battles, on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak's government is set to discover whether its last-ditch attempt to keep the policy alive will be backed by the UK's top court.

With the Supreme Court's decision, Downing Street will see if can finally push ahead with its latest answer to tackling the growing numbers of migrants arriving on small boats or if it will have to go back to the drawing board.

The decision will be pivotal as tackling immigration is one of Mr Sunak's five pledges and was reinforced in the first speech by new Home Secretary James Cleverly when he announced with vigour that “we will stop the boats”.

Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick says it is the government's aim to “stop the boats in their entirety” by the next election, but warned this would not be achieved without the deterrent threat of deportation to Rwanda.

In a heated letter on Wednesday night, ousted former home secretary Suella Braverman accused Mr Sunak of a “betrayal” of his promise to do “whatever it takes” to stop small boat crossings by failing to override human rights concerns about the Rwanda plan.

Marley Morris, associate director of migration, trade and communities at think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, told The National that, regardless of the decision, the government will still face “major hurdles”.

“Limited detention space in the UK and asylum capacity in Rwanda will make it hard to remove people at scale, seriously undermining its deterrent effect,” he explained.

“If it is deemed legal, the government will seek to implement the Illegal Migration Act, but this is likely to create a 'perma-backlog' of asylum seekers in limbo, who both cannot be removed and cannot be processed within the UK asylum system.

“And if the Supreme Court deems the plan illegal, then it will be back to the drawing board – we expect the government will try to redesign its deal with Rwanda while seeking new agreements with other countries, but may well struggle on both counts.”

The ruling will come days after a cabinet reshuffle in which Mr Cleverly, the former foreign secretary, become Home Secretary following the sacking of Ms Braverman.

The stakes are high for the government, with Mr Cleverly using his first speech on Monday to make clear that the policy to remove asylum seekers who arrive in the UK by unauthorised means forcibly to Rwanda is a “crucial part” of its plans to halt Channel crossings.

Ahead of the ruling, Mr Cleverly “outlined some of the possible scenarios” of the judgment, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“Ahead of the Supreme Court judgment on the Rwanda migration partnership, the Prime Minister highlighted significant progress made by the government to stop the boats,” a cabinet readout said.

He said that the UK was bucking the global trend by significantly reducing the flow of illegal immigrants into the country while other countries continue to see their numbers rise.

“Alongside this, he said we are on track to eliminate the asylum legacy backlog and were making good progress on curbing the use of hotels to house migrants,” the spokesman added.

The government says it has been working on more return agreements, most recently with Georgia and Albania.

In January, Mr Sunak said tackling illegal migration was one of his five priorities for 2023.

“We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed,” he said.

It led to Ms Braverman accusing him on Wednesday night of “never having any intention” of keeping his key promises.

“You have manifestly and repeatedly failed to deliver on every single one of these key policies,” she said.

“Either your distinctive style of government means you are incapable of doing so. Or, as I must surely conclude now, you never had any intention of keeping your promises.”

Despite Mr Sunak seeing the Rwanda policy as “crucial” to his pledge to “stop the boats”, it is understood contingency measures have been drawn up behind closed doors in case the top justices side with the Court of Appeal ruling that removing asylum seekers to Kigali is unlawful.

Ministers have prepared for straightforward yes or no verdicts in the UK’s highest court, as well as the possibility that the ruling is more complex.

Any outcome could end up with further appeals to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Mr Sunak is expected to face mounting calls for the UK to leave the ECHR to prevent it being bound by its decisions.

One voice championing the move could be the ousted Ms Braverman.

It comes as her supporters on the right wing of the party, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, who co-lead the New Conservatives grouping of MPs, criticised Mr Sunak after he brought back former prime minister David Cameron as Foreign Secretary and appointed key loyalists to positions.

They both want the UK to leave the Strasbourg court “whatever the outcome” on Wednesday.

In a statement, Ms Cates and Mr Kruger stressed their support for the Prime Minister, but expressed deep disappointment that Downing Street had decided to give up on the voters Boris Johnson won over in the 2019 general election.

“We are concerned that the reshuffle indicates a major change in the policy direction of the government,” they said.

“The Conservative Party now looks like it is deliberately walking away from the coalition of voters who brought us into power with a large majority in 2019.”

Last month, the Home Office challenged a Court of Appeal ruling from June that overturned the High Court’s finding that Rwanda could be considered a “safe third country” for migrants.

UK government plan to deport migrants to Rwanda is unlawful, court rules

UK government plan to deport migrants to Rwanda is unlawful, court rules

Lawyers representing people facing deportation to the East African nation argue Rwanda is an “authoritarian, one-party state” with a “woefully deficient” asylum system.

But the Home Office has said the policy to remove asylum seekers to a “country less attractive” than the UK, “but nevertheless safe”, is lawful.

Five justices at the Supreme Court will give their verdict on Wednesday morning, before Mr Sunak faces Prime Minister’s Questions.

The Illegal Migration Act brought into law the government’s policy of sending some asylum seekers to Rwanda.

However, the plans announced in April 2022 have been held up in the courts, with no deportation flights having taken place despite £140 million already being handed to Kigali.

Under the programme, only up to 500 people a year would be sent despite a staggering 46,000 arriving per year.

Once relocated, the UK’s legal responsibilities for them would end and they will not be able to apply for asylum in the UK. Instead, they will be able to apply for asylum in Rwanda and have their claims processed there.

Updated: November 15, 2023, 11:26 AM