November 22, 2023
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom unanimously rejected Rishi Sunak’s ambitious plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. The ruling, which aligns with the previous decision by the appeal court, deals a significant blow to the Prime Minister’s central promise of “stopping the boats.” This article delves into the intricate background of the case, the court’s legal reasoning, political fallout, and potential future ramifications, providing a comprehensive analysis of this pivotal development.


In the quest to control the influx of asylum seekers arriving in the UK via small boats crossing the English Channel, the Sunak government devised a pivotal strategy – the £140 million Rwanda plan. This approach as highlighted in the Illegal Migration Bill, aimed at serving as a deterrent, has faced a series of legal challenges, culminating in a unanimous rejection by the Supreme Court.

Despite Britain receiving fewer asylum applications than its European counterparts of Italy, France and Germany, the northern regions of France attract thousands of migrants annually, all hoping to cross the English Channel. This year, over 27,300 individuals undertook this journey, a decline from the 46,000 in 2022. The government asserts that this decrease is evidence of its successful tough approach, while others argue that external factors, including weather conditions, also play a role.

The inaugural deportation attempt, scheduled for June 2022, was abruptly halted due to intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. The ensuing legal battle traversed the High Court and the Court of Appeal, both of which ruled the plan unlawful, deeming Rwanda unsuitable as a “safe third country.” The government’s subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court proved unsuccessful, as the unanimous decision underscored concerns about the genuine risks faced by deported refugees. This decision also drew attention to potential mishandling of asylum claims in Rwanda, echoing previous issues with a failed deportation agreement between Israel and Rwanda and casting doubts on the overall efficacy of such arrangements.

The Court’s Decision

Lord Reed, President of the Supreme Court, delivered the judgment, reiterating the unanimous agreement with the Court of Appeal’s finding that there was a real risk of claims being incorrectly determined in Rwanda. The decision rested on substantial evidence, particularly highlighting the failure of a similar deportation arrangement elsewhere. This ruling not only challenges the government’s core strategy but also underscores the imperative of legal compliance in shaping immigration policies.

Political Fallout

The timing of the ruling coincided with a scathing letter from the dismissed Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, accusing the Prime Minister of reneging on agreements regarding legal safeguards under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act. This development not only questions the government’s contingency plans but also raises concerns about potential repercussions within the Conservative Party.

As the debate over immigration policies intensifies, the political fallout becomes a focal point of discussion. Despite the setback, Rishi Sunak expressed determination to pursue alternative measures, asserting the existence of a “plan B.” The Home Secretary, James Cleverly, highlighted the government’s commitment to the Rwanda partnership, framing it as part of a broader strategy to combat illegal migration. This sentiment found resonance among hard-right Conservative MPs.


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Legal Implications And Costs

The cost of the Rwanda plan is staggering, with the British government disbursing at least £140 million ($175 million) to Rwanda before the initiation of a single deportation flight.

The Supreme Court’s decision not only questions the efficacy of the Rwanda scheme but also raises concerns about the substantial funds already allocated to the project. The cost of the Rwanda plan is staggering, with the British government disbursing at least £140 million ($175 million) to Rwanda before the initiation of a single deportation flight. The lack of transparency regarding the breakdown of costs and legal fees underscores the need for accountability and scrutiny. 

Reactions From Advocacy Groups

Various advocacy groups and legal representatives celebrated the ruling as a victory for compassion, humanity, and the rule of law. Enver Solomon of the Refugee Council and Toufique Hossain of Duncan Lewis solicitors emphasised the importance of standing against inhumane policies and ensuring that governments operate within the bounds of the law. 

Where Do The Asylum Seekers Go Now?

While the immediate risk of removal to Rwanda has diminished for those issued removal notices, there remains a possibility of people being sent back to their countries of origin under existing laws. The ruling compels the government to find a sustainable solution for individuals they cannot forcibly deport, including ensuring safe housing.

For those previously at risk of removal to Rwanda, the situation has temporarily improved. However, the government may still pursue removals to countries of origin if asylum or other claims are rejected, particularly for individuals from EU countries who could be removed without assessing their asylum claims under existing rules.

Amidst these uncertainties, advocacy groups like JCWI (Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants) continue to support individuals seeking asylum in the UK. They aim to provide resources to inform people of their rights and encourage resistance against what they perceive as the government’s hostile policies, advocating for the protection of the universal right to seek asylum in the UK.

What Does The Future Hold?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in response to the Supreme Court’s rejection, plans to circumvent the ruling by pursuing a treaty with Rwanda and introducing emergency legislation asserting Rwanda’s safety, despite substantial evidence suggesting the contrary. Sunak’s intent to block challenges to his plans, even in the face of potential human rights violations, raises concerns about the government’s commitment to legal and ethical considerations. If Sunak proceeds, both the treaty and emergency legislation will require parliamentary approval.


The Supreme Court’s rejection of Rishi Sunak’s asylum plan marks a critical juncture in the ongoing debate over immigration policies. As legal battles unfold, the government faces the challenge of reconciling its goals with legal and ethical considerations. The judgment not only serves as a victory for those seeking asylum but also highlights the importance of upholding the rule of law in shaping immigration strategies. The evolving scenario demands vigilance from law students and professionals alike, providing a unique opportunity to observe the intersection of law, politics, and human rights in real-time.

Commercial Awareness Questions

Here’s our round-up of commercial questions to challenge you to think about the wider themes and implications associated with this topic:

  • What potential implications does the Supreme Court’s rejection of Rishi Sunak’s asylum plan hold for future government initiatives, especially concerning immigration policies?
  • How might the lack of transparency in the breakdown of costs and legal fees for the Rwanda deportation plan impact public trust in government spending?
  • How might advocacy groups continue to influence public discourse and potentially impact government policy decisions in the future?


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