The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom will rule on Wednesday on whether the government can proceed with its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, a decision that could have far-reaching consequences for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
During October proceedings, government attorneys claimed that the Supreme Court should overturn a finding that the operation to transport thousands of asylum seekers across 4,000 miles (6,400 km) to East Africa was illegal because Rwanda was not a secure third country.
Sunak hopes the Rwanda scheme will help stop the flow of migrants across the Channel from Europe in small boats, and so deliver one of his key policy pledges and energise his ailing premiership ahead of an election expected next year.
With his Conservative Party languishing about 20 points behind in the polls and immigration a major concern for some voters, victory in the Supreme Court would be seized on by the government as a sign it was getting to grips with the issue. Defeat would be viewed as another failure.
The court’s decision could also magnify calls from some Conservative lawmakers for Britain to pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), especially after Sunak upset some on the right of his party by sacking Suella Braverman, a vocal critic of the treaty, as the minister in charge of the issue on Monday.
The government has suffered a number of major defeats in the Supreme Court in recent years, most notably when it found former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had acted illegally when he suspended parliament in 2019.The five senior judges, including the court’s president Robert Reed, will deliver their decision at about 1000 GMT on Wednesday.
During three days of hearings, the judges heard from government lawyers who said there was a “serious and pressing need” for the Rwanda scheme.
They argued Rwanda was “less attractive” to those who might come to Britain, and so the scheme would be a deterrent, while the deal struck with the East African country would ensure the human rights of migrants deported there would be protected.
“There is a strong public interest in deterring illegal, dangerous and unnecessary journeys from safe third countries to the UK, whilst ensuring that those who continue to make such journeys are removed to a safe third country,” they said.
Rwanda has said it would offer migrants sent from Britain the opportunity to build a new, safe life.
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 ECHR, and put them at risk of being returned to their home countries despite having valid asylum claims.
They also said asylum seekers faced inhuman or degrading treatment within Rwanda, and their argument has support from the United Nations’ refugee agency.
The Rwanda deal, struck by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022, was designed to deter asylum seekers from making dangerous journeys across the Channel, and Sunak has made ending the influx one of five priorities as he seeks to turn around his and his party’s fortunes.
“We will stop the boats,” James Cleverly, Braverman’s replacement as interior minister, said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
This year more than 27,000 people have arrived in Britain on small boats without permission, after a record 45,755 were detected in 2022.
The scheme was put on hold in June last year after the European Court of Human Rights granted a last-minute injunction, blocking the first planned flight. That directive has now expired.