By Sam Tobin and Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday it would be a couple of months before it gives its decision on whether the government could go ahead with its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Lawyers for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government have been arguing over three days this week that the court should overturn a June ruling that the scheme to send thousands of asylum seekers more than 4,000 miles (6,400 km) to East Africa is unlawful as Rwanda was not a safe third country.
The fate of the Rwanda scheme – which Sunak hopes will stop migrants crossing the Channel from Europe in small boats, one of his key policy pledges as his Conservative Party languishes in the polls – now rests with the court’s five judges.
“I appreciate people will be anxious to know how long it’s going to take us to produce a judgment, I’m afraid it’s difficult to say,” the court’s president Robert Reed said.
He suggested they would take as long as lower courts had in making their decisions – about two months, meaning the decision could come in mid-December.
During the hearing, government lawyers stressed the “serious and pressing need” for the scheme.
But lawyers representing asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam and Sudan who face being sent to Rwanda argued it was unlawful to send people there because it would breach the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
Raza Husain, a lawyer representing eight asylum seekers, said those sent there were at risk of being returned to their home countries despite having valid asylum claims.
He also argued asylum seekers faced inhuman or degrading treatment within Rwanda.
The United Nations’ refugee agency also intervened in the appeal, with its lawyers reiterating its “unequivocal warning against the transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda”.
The Rwandan government has said it will offer migrants sent from Britain the opportunity to build a new, safe life, while the British government says assurances given means asylum seekers would be treated well.
The case comes amid a backdrop of public debate in Britain about immigration, a factor in the 2016 referendum vote for Britain to leave the European Union. Thhis year more than 25,000 people have arrived in Britain on small boats without permission, after a record 45,755 were detected in 2022.
Sunak, whose Conservatives are trailing by about 20 points in polls ahead of an election expected next year, has made a pledge to “stop the boats” one of five priorities as he seeks to turn around his party’s fortunes.
The Rwanda plan, struck by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, was designed to deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous journey across the Channel from Europe.
It has become hugely divisive, with opponents ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the opposition Labour party which has pledged to ditch the policy.
Human Rights Watch called on Britain to abandon its plan, saying in a report published on Tuesday that Rwanda had shown “contempt for human rights norms”. Yolande Makolo, a Rwandan government spokesperson, described the report as “deceitful”.
(Reporting by Sam Tobin and Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)