Rishi Sunak has said he will introduce “emergency legislation” to deem Rwanda a safe country, hours after judges scuppered his plan to “stop the boats”.
Five justices of the UK Supreme Court rejected the government's appeal against a European Court ruling that migrants could not be sent to Rwanda because it could not be considered a safe third country.
The decision means forcible removal of migrants to Kigali remains prohibited after the ruling on the Conservative flagship policy that has been stalled by more than a year of legal challenges.
Mr Sunak, who had made cracking down on small boat crossings by migrants in the English Channel one of his five priorities, told MPs he would work with Rwanda to take account of the judges' concerns, upgrading the deal to a treaty.
Hours later, the prime minister announced that emergency legislation would be brought in to prevent the “merry-go-round” of legal challenges which had resulted in deportation planes being grounded.
At a press conference in Downing Street, he said: “I do not agree with this decision but I respect it and accept it. The rule of law is fundamental to our democracy. We have prepared for all outcomes of this case. And so we have been working on a new international treaty with Rwanda.
“This will provide a guarantee in law that those who are relocated from the UK to Rwanda will be protected against removal from Rwanda and it will make clear that we will bring back anyone if ordered to do so by a court.
“We will finalise this treaty in light of today’s judgment and ratify it without delay.
“But we need to end the merry-go-round. I said I was going to fundamentally change our country, and I meant it. So I’m also announcing today that we will take the extraordinary step of introducing emergency legislation. This will enable Parliament to confirm that with our new treaty, Rwanda is safe.”
He did not expand on how the legislation would work in practice.
In his initial response to the court judgment, Mr Sunak said he would consider changing the law to allow deportations to take place. “If it becomes clear that our domestic legal frameworks or international conventions are still frustrating the plans at that point, I am prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships,” he said.
He now faces pressure from the right of his party to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights.
Pre-empting that criticism, he said that he would not let a “foreign court” block flights to Rwanda, as he took aim at the ECHR.
He said he was “prepared to do what is necessary” if the court intervened “against the expressed wishes” of MPs.
More than 45,000 people reached the UK by crossing the English Channel in small boats in 2022, while 27,000 have so far made the dangerous journey this year.
'Real risk of being sent back to countries where they came from'
Lord Reed, the President of the Supreme Court, said the legal test in the case was whether there were substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be at “real risk” of being sent back to the countries they came from where they could face ill-treatment.
“In the light of the evidence which I have summarised, the Court of Appeal concluded that there were such grounds,” he said.
The decision was welcomed by groups representing refugees from the Middle East.
Dashty Jamal, the general secretary of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, told The National outside the Supreme Court that he was pleased with the judges’ “great decision” in rejecting the “shameful policy”.
“Rwanda is not safe and human rights don’t exist to remove asylum seekers to Rwanda,” he said.
“We believe that asylum rights are human rights and those people who have fled their countries have fled war and insecurity.”
Mr Jamal called for “support for people who have come to this country from warzones” and “let’s give them the right to work, let’s give them accommodation, to integrate”.
Saeed Arman, secretary of the International Organisation of Iranian Refugees, said the decision would give hope to those escaping the “dictatorship”.
“We are very happy because people fleeing should not be sent to Rwanda, which is an unsafe country,” he said.
“It’s very important for people escaping Iran to feel they can go to a safe country.”
The Refugee Council’s chief executive Enver Solomon told The National the Supreme Court decision was “a victory for the rights of men women and children who come to the UK seeking safety”.
“These are people we work with day-in and day-out at the Refugee Council and they are people who have fled bombs, bullets and destruction in countries such as Sudan and Syria and persecution in countries such as Afghanistan,” he said.
“Today the Supreme Court has stood up for their rights and sent a clear message to the government that the Rwanda deal is not lawful and the government needs to think again.
“The money the government planned to spend on Rwanda would be better spent on a system of humanitarian visas and safe routes for asylum seekers.
“But the government is choosing a path that is about keeping people out and building walls,” he said.
Former home secretary Suella Braverman, who was sacked by Mr Sunak on Monday, had called on Mr Sunak to introduce “emergency legislation” following the Supreme Court decision.
In a post on X, formerly Twitter, she said: “Given the current state of the law, there is no reason to criticise the judges. Instead, the government must introduce emergency legislation.”
She said the ECHR, Human Rights Act and other routes of legal challenge must be blocked.
“This will give Parliament a clear choice,” she said. “Control illegal migration or explain to the British people why they should accept ever greater numbers of illegal arrivals settling here.
“Those who – like me – believe that effective immigration control is vital must understand that they cannot have their cake and eat it: there is no chance of curbing illegal migration within the current legal framework.
“We must legislate or admit defeat.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister said the judgment was “not the outcome we wanted” but “confirmed that the principle of sending illegal migrants to a safe third country for processing is lawful” and pledged to press ahead with plans to end illegal migration.
“We are unanimously of the view that they were entitled to reach that conclusion. Indeed, having been taken through the evidence ourselves, we agree with their conclusion,” he said.
“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,” he added.
“Illegal migration destroys lives and costs British taxpayers millions of pounds a year. We need to end it and we will do whatever it takes to do so.
“Because, when people know that if they come here illegally, they won’t get to stay, then they will stop coming altogether, and we will stop the boats.”
Rwanda is not the Government’s only tool in the toolbox as it tackles every stage of a would-be illegal migrant’s journey to the UK, the Home Secretary said.
Speaking in the Commons, James Cleverly described Rwanda as an “African country full of potential and promise”. He said: “Rwanda is ready to receive thousands of people, process their claims, give them excellent care and then support them to integrate to Rwanda.
“We have a future-focused and mutually-beneficial partnership with them, and we plan to deliver.”
He pointed to other European countries such as Italy, Germany and Austria who are pursuing similar schemes.
“Clearly there is an appetite for this concept,” he said.
The Liberal Democrats said it was time for Home Secretary James Cleverly to “get on with fixing the broken asylum system”.
Alistair Carmichael MP, the party's home affairs spokesman, said: “It was clear from the get-go that the Conservatives' Rwanda scheme was destined to fail.
“Not only is it immoral, unworkable and incredibly costly for taxpayers – but the Supreme Court has confirmed that it is unlawful, too.”
The Supreme Court ruling was welcomed by other charities that have fought against the policy.
Katie Morrison, chief executive at London-based Safe Passage, told The National the decision was “very welcome”.
“We’re thinking of all the people and families in the UK who will be breathing a sigh of relief, after living in fear every day of banishment to Rwanda.
“We’re sure this government won’t give up on its unlawful, unworkable and expensive plan to punish refugees who cross the Channel, but today’s decision will make it that much harder.”
Steve Smith, chief executive of refugee charity Care4Calais, said the judgment was “a victory for humanity”.
“Today's judgment should bring this shameful mark on the UK's history to a close,” he added.
“Never again should our government seek to shirk our country's responsibility to offer sanctuary to those caught up in horrors around the world.
“All the architects of the Rwanda plan may be gone, but unless the government changes course and introduces a policy of safe passage, then the rest should follow them out the door. There can be no more time wasted attacking the vulnerable when all they seek is our help.”
What is the Rwanda scheme?
No one has been sent to Rwanda yet as the plan has been stuck in the courts for the past 17 months.
The legal wrangle began in April 2022 when Britain and Rwanda signed a deal to send some migrants who arrive in the UK as stowaways or in small boats across the English Channel to the East African country, where their asylum claims would be processed.
Those granted asylum would stay in Rwanda, rather than returning to the UK.
However, the first deportation flight was stopped at the last minute in June 2022 when the European Court of Human Rights intervened.
In December, the High Court in London ruled that the Rwanda plan is legal, but that the government must consider the circumstances of each case before putting anyone on a plane.
In June, the Court of Appeal backed a challenge by asylum seekers from countries including Syria, Vietnam and Iran. The court ruled that the plan was unlawful because Rwanda is not a “safe third country” and there was a risk that migrants sent there would be returned to the home countries they had fled.
That was challenged at the Supreme Court by the government, which argued at a hearing last month that it had thoroughly assessed the risks and would ensure that Rwanda’s government abides by its agreement to protect migrants’ rights.