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The U.K. Supreme Court has struck down a plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda

Protesters stand outside the Supreme Court in London on Wednesday.
Kirsty Wigglesworth
Protesters stand outside the Supreme Court in London on Wednesday.

LONDON — In a massive defeat for the British prime minister, the United Kingdom's Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that the government's controversial immigration policy is unlawful.

The country's top court has blocked Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's flagship policy that would sendasylum-seekers to Rwanda, whose authorities would process their claims.

"There are substantial grounds for believing that asylum seekers would face a real risk of ill-treatment" by being sent back to "their country of origin if they were removed to Rwanda," the court said.

Following the ruling, Sunak said in a news conferenceWednesday evening that he would "pass emergency legislation" to deem Rwanda a safe country and that he would "not allow foreign courts to block the flights" the U.K. plans to use to transfer migrants to the African country.

The European Court of Human Rights blocked the first planned flight to Rwanda in June 2022, and none has taken off since.

The British government has reported an increase in the number of migrants taking small boats across the English Channel to the United Kingdom. Prime Minister Sunak has made it a key pledge to stop these crossings, campaigning on the slogan "stop the boats."

The government has said the threat of being deported to Rwanda would deter migrants from making that journey. Critics and lawmakers say there's no evidence that would work.

For now, commentators and experts say the plan — for which the government has already paid Rwanda almost $175 million — is in tatters.

Eighteen months after the U.K. government announced the Rwanda policy, and a general election expected about a year from now, experts say this ruling from the country's highest court has left the Sunak government with no legal routes to salvage what was a signature immigration policy: criminalizing crossing the English Channel by boat without a visa and threatening anyone who made the journey with being sent home or, if that is deemed unsafe, then to Rwanda.

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves from 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday.
Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves from 10 Downing Street in London on Wednesday.

Announcing the highly anticipated Supreme Court ruling Wednesday morning, the president of the court Robert Reed said there was a "real risk" that asylum-seekers could be sent from Rwanda back to the places they had fled. He pointed to evidence from the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, which showed the failure of a similar deportation agreement between Israel and Rwanda.

The court cited the country's obligations under national laws and international treaties to protect the rights of refugees.

Some hard-liners in Sunak's Conservative Party are pushing for the prime minister to pull the country out of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was the basis used for blocking Britain's deportations to Rwanda last year.

Reed's conclusion that British laws would prohibit sending refugees to Rwanda means that the policy would still be deemed unlawful, even if the government were to quit the European convention.

Sunak has come under pressure from lawmakers on the right of his Conservative Party to disapply human rights laws in order to make the Rwanda policy work — which had been his government's answer to the small boats issue. Some Conservative members of Parliament have even suggested they might submit letters of no confidencein the prime minister over his response to the ruling.

Refugee charities have welcomed the ruling. Enver Solomon, CEO of the U.K.-based charity, the Refugee Council, called it a "victory for the rights of men, women and children who simply want to be safe." He added that the Refugee Council works with people who have fled war-torn countries like Sudan and Syria, and that they had been "highly distressed, anxious and traumatized about the prospect of being shipped as though they are human cargo to Rwanda."

Earlier this year, NPR spoke to an asylum-seeker from Iran, who had boarded a plane that was due to leave the U.K. for Rwanda before it was grounded by an eleventh-hour ruling from the European Court of Human Rights which intervened to stop the deportation of one of the asylum seekers on the flight. This then provided grounds for the remaining six people on the flight to put forward legal challenges in London courts. No flights have left for Rwanda since.

N.A., who asked to be identified by his initials only out of concerns media attention could jeopardize his asylum case, sent NPR a voice message from a hotel in Birmingham, England, where the government is housing him and other migrants awaiting resolution on this policy.

"They treated us like criminals and murderers. Every knock on the door, I think it's the authorities coming to escort us back to that plane," he said in the message earlier this year.

The ruling comes at a tumultuous time for the Sunak government. Suella Braverman, the former home secretary who spearheaded the Rwanda plan, was fired this week and released a scathing letter to the prime minister, accusing him of "betrayal" over the government's immigration policies.

Reed said the Supreme Court supported an earlier Court of Appeal decisionin June that concluded Rwanda was not safe for refugees.

Braverman — who has previously described deporting migrants to Rwanda as her "dream" and "obsession" — said in her letter that Sunak had no "credible plan B" if the government lost in the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Fatima Al-Kassab