London - Britain's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government's policy of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda for processing is illegal.
The verdict is a big political blow to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who made "stopping the boats" one of his top five priorities when he took over the leadership in October last year.
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Britain struck a five-year, $150 million deal with Rwanda in April 2022 to send an unspecified number of asylum-seekers arriving across the English Channel in small boats to Kigali for processing.
The Rwandan government has already constructed reception centers and accommodations in the capital to house the migrants.
The first flight was just minutes from takeoff in June 2022, when it was blocked by an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights, which barred any removals until the conclusion of legal action in Britain.
The Court of Appeal concluded in June that the policy was illegal because those deported to Rwanda would be at risk of being sent home to face possible persecution - a process known as refoulement - which is outlawed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and other international treaties to which Britain is a signatory.
The five judges of Britain's Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the original decision by the Court of Appeal was correct.
"The legal test which has to be applied in this case is whether there are substantial grounds for believing that asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda would be at real risk of refoulement," Supreme Court President Robert Reed announced Wednesday. "The Court of Appeal concluded that there were such grounds. 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."
Reed added that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees had presented evidence to the court that Rwanda had conducted such refoulement operations in the past.
Speaking at a press conference several hours after the verdict, Sunak said he would seek to sign a new treaty with Rwanda.
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak reacts as he gives a press conference, following the Supreme Court's Rwanda policy judgement, at Downing Street, in central London, Nov. 15, 2023.
"This will provide a guarantee in law that those who are relocated from the U.K. 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 finalize the treaty in light of today's judgment and ratify it without delay," Sunak told reporters, adding that he would be prepared to revisit Britain's membership of the European Convention on Human Rights and other international treaties.
"We could still face challenges from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg," Sunak said. "I told parliament earlier today that I am prepared to change our laws and revisit those international relationships to remove the obstacles in our way. So, let me tell everybody now - I will not allow a foreign court to block these flights."
However, the Supreme Court emphasized that Britain's membership in the ECHR was only one consideration in their judgment, said Professor Tim Bale, a political analyst at Queen Mary University of London.
"The judge has made it fairly clear that in fact their judgment doesn't just depend on the ECHR but depends on this principle of non-refoulement. And also on the basis of various international treaties and legal obligations that the U.K. has had. And that means that the solution to the problem as put forward by the right wing of the Conservative Party, namely, to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, really doesn't hold much water now," Bale told VOA.
Sunak listed "stopping the boats" as one of his five priorities when he became prime minister last year, when more than 45,700 migrants crossed the English Channel to Britain on small boats - the highest figure since records began. Numbers this year have fallen, with just over 27,000 arrivals.
FILE - Migrants arrive at Dover harbor onboard a Border Force vessel, after being rescued while attempting to cross the English Channel, in Dover, Britain, Aug. 24, 2022.
Reducing immigration was a major factor that led to the 2016 vote for Britain to leave the European Union, called Brexit, and successive conservative governments have promised to cut net migration.
The Supreme Court ruling presents Sunak with another political headache after he fired Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a popular figure on the right wing of the Conservative Party and a strong supporter of the Rwanda plan, on Monday, said Bale.
"This scheme was a means of supposedly deterring people from coming across the Channel in those small boats. So, I think the court's judgment has essentially put the kibosh on that. And, therefore, I think presents the government with a big political problem," Bale said.
The idea of processing asylum-seekers in third countries is being explored by other countries in Europe. Denmark has also signed a deal with Rwanda, although it has not yet sent any migrants to Kigali, while Italy plans to build reception camps in Albania and begin processing asylum applicants there from early next year.
The European Union said Wednesday that its initial assessment was that Italy's deal with Albania would not breach EU law.
Attitudes on migration are hardening in the bloc, said Camino Mortera-Martinez, head of the Brussels office of the Centre for European Reform.
"The political consensus has been for a long time on the issues of increasing returns [of failed asylum-seekers] - which is one of the most tricky parts of any migration policy, and also border controls and the fight against irregular migration - ironically enough, the kinds of things that the U.K. government had been asking for for a long time when it was inside of the European Union," she told VOA.
At the same time, several EU states are seeking to increase opportunities for legal migration.
"European countries actually need migration to fill in labor shortages," Mortera-Martinez said.