UK’s Sunak comes out fighting after court defeat on Rwanda asylum plan

By Andrew MacAskill and Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) -After suffering a devastating defeat in the country’s top court, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak aims to revive his flagship immigration policy though legal experts question whether it will be enough to overcome the legal obstacles.

The UK Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful, leading members of parliament in Sunak’s Conservative Party to demand he find a way to enact one of his government’s centrepiece pledges.

Sunak said he was working on a new treaty with Rwanda that would address the points made by the court, would pass an emergency law to designate Rwanda a safe country, and was “prepared to do what is necessary” to stop any foreign court blocking deportation flights.

But whether his actions will be enough to satisfy the courts, or restless members on the right of his party, some of whom have warned of a leadership challenge, remain to be seen.

“The PM was right to say we have to do ‘whatever it takes’ – but it’s now clear that what it will ‘take’ is more than a reheat of this, or a new treaty with Rwanda,” said Conservative lawmaker Neil O’Brien.

“We tried the cautious approach and that was reasonable – but we now know for sure – tinkering won’t work.”

In their ruling, the judges said Rwanda had to make “significant changes” before it could be considered a safe third country for migrants, highlighting judicial failings as well as its record of compliance with other international treaties.

James Cleverly, Britain’s new interior minister, said the Rwanda deal would be upgraded to a legally-binding treaty from a memorandum of understanding, and ensure that anyone removed to Rwanda could not be sent to another country apart from Britain.

“You would have to have Rwanda promising to fix all these things, but even that on its own I am not sure, reading the judgment, would be enough to make it safe,” Gavin Phillipson, professor of law at the University of Bristol, told Reuters.

Alan Greene, a reader in Constitutional Law and Human Rights at Birmingham Law School, said it was not clear how a new treaty would solve the concerns raised by the Supreme Court about Britain’s adherence to international obligations.


Legal experts said the emergency law could address domestic issues, but those facing deportation would still be able to seek remedy in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, said it had “grave concern” about the prospect of parliament passing legislation intended to deem Rwanda a safe country and therefore upend the Supreme Court’s finding.

“That would raise profound and important questions about the respective role of the courts and parliament in countries that subscribe to the Rule of Law,” Bar Council Chair Nick Vineall.

With those on the right wing of the Conservative Party vociferously advocating abandoning the European rights’ convention and other international treaties, Sunak said he would not accept a foreign court blocking flights.

“We need to end the merry-go-round,” Sunak told a press conference in Downing Street, saying he thought deportation planes to Rwanda could start flying by the spring of next year.

However, Phillipson and others said the emergency law on which he was relying was likely to be held up by parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, for a year, and no flights were likely before the next election – which must be held by January 2025 at the latest, with the opposition Labour Party currently far ahead in opinion polls.

That meant Sunak needed to go further and faster, right-wing critics in his party said.

“We have no time left. This bill – which must come to parliament within weeks – must have everything in it to ensure that flights are in the air within months,” a statement from the chairs of the New Conservatives group of lawmakers said.

However, another Conservative politician in the moderate wing of the faction-ridden party was pessimistic about the plan’s future. “I think the policy is dead and buried,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Sam Tobin and Sachin Ravikumar; Editing by Alex Richardson)