Suella Braverman has announced her intention to deliver mass deportations of people seeking UK asylum to Rwanda “at scale and as soon as possible” after the high court ruled that the policy was lawful.
The home secretary brushed away condemnation from Labour MPs for lacking compassion and told the Commons the government had been vindicated for its £140m deal with the central African country.
Appearing before parliament, she declined an invitation to put a date on when the first flight would take off, but added: “I spoke with my Rwandan counterpart, Vincent Biruta, and we both confirmed our joint and steadfast resolve to deliver this partnership at scale as soon as possible.
“It’s what the overwhelming majority of the British people want to see happen.”
Her comments followed a judgment on Monday that could have major political ramifications for Rishi Sunak’s government. Judges dismissed an application from asylum seekers, aid groups and a border officials’ union to stop the Conservative government from sending people seeking to claim asylum in the UK to Rwanda.
But in a rebuke for the Home Office, two judges said the government failed to consider the circumstances of eight individuals it tried to deport under the scheme in June.
The partial victory for the government does not mean flights will be able to take off straight away. There are expected to be further appeals, and a European court of human rights injunction in the summer prevented immediate deportations until the legal process has been exhausted. Lawyers and NGOs claimed that the legal process “could take years” rather than months.
The ruling comes after Sunak prioritised the deterrence of people from seeking asylum in the UK. More than 44,000 people have arrived in Britain by crossing the Channel in small boats and several have died, including four last week when a boat capsized in freezing weather.
It is understood that some of the applicants, who include the Public and Commercial Services trade union and the charities Care4Calais and Detention Action, will appeal against the judgment.
One of the judges, Lord Justice Lewis, said: “The court has concluded that it is lawful for the government to make arrangements for relocating asylum seekers to Rwanda and for their asylum claims to be determined in Rwanda rather than in the United Kingdom.”
But he added that the government “must decide if there is anything about each person’s particular circumstances which means that his asylum claim should be determined in the United Kingdom or whether there are other reasons why he should not be relocated to Rwanda. The home secretary has not properly considered the circumstances of the eight individual claimants whose cases we have considered.”
Under the deportation agreement, the UK would send some people who arrive in the UK as stowaways or in boats to Rwanda, where their asylum claims would be processed. Those granted asylum would stay in Rwanda rather than returning to the UK.
Britain has paid Rwanda £140m under the deal struck in April, but no one has yet been sent there. The UK was forced to cancel the first deportation flight at the last minute in June after the European court of human rights ruled the plan carried “a real risk of irreversible harm”.
Human rights groups say it is illegal, unworkable and inhumane to send people thousands of miles to a country they do not want to live in. They also cite Rwanda’s poor human rights record, including allegations of torture and killings of government opponents.
It emerged in court that in March 2021 Foreign Office officials told Dominic Raab, then the foreign secretary, that if Rwanda was selected for the deportation policy, “we would need to be prepared to constrain UK positions on Rwanda’s human rights record, and to absorb resulting criticism from UK parliament and NGOs”.
In another memo, Foreign Office officials said they had advised Downing Street against engagement with several countries, including Rwanda.
The court also heard that the UK’s then high commissioner to Rwanda previously indicated that the east African country should not be used as an option for the policy, telling the government it “has been accused of recruiting refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries”.
The challenge was backed by the UNHCR, which said Rwanda’s system for assessing refugees lacked the “minimum components of an accessible, reliable, fair and efficient asylum system”.
The UK receives fewer asylum seekers than many European countries, including Germany, France and Italy. Some asylum seekers want to reach the UK because they have friends or family here, others because they speak English or because it is perceived to be easy to find work.
The government wants to deport all people who arrive by unauthorised routes, and aims to strike Rwanda-style deals with other countries. Critics say there are few authorised routes for seeking asylum in the UK, other than those set up for people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong.
Responding to Monday’s judgment, Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, said she was discussing “next steps” with her legal team. “We will consider our position in respect of the court of appeal,” she said.
The PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, said: “We’re disappointed the court hasn’t found in our favour but we’re pleased that eight refugees have had their decisions quashed and will not be deported to Rwanda at this stage.”
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: “If the government moves ahead with these harmful plans, it would damage the UK’s reputation as a country that values human rights, and undermine our commitment to provide safety to those fleeing conflict and oppression, as enshrined in the 1951 refugee convention.”
The Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said: “This is a positive step in our quest to contribute to innovative, long-term solutions to the global migration crisis.”
Frank Habineza, the leader of Rwanda’s opposition Green party, said he opposed any deal involving migration. “We think countries such as the UK should not shift away from their obligation,” he said.
Priti Patel, the former home secretary who devised the policy, welcomed the judgment. “No single policy will stop the Channel crossings, but this important policy will save lives,” she said.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats urged the government to abandon “unworkable, unethical, extortionately expensive” Rwanda policy.
Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dems’ home affair spokesperson, said: “The Conservatives are betraying the UK’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary to refugees fleeing war and persecution, and breaching our commitments under the 1951 UN refugee convention.”