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British court of appeal rules deporting migrants to Rwanda "illegal"

Protesters hold up placards as they gather close to the Brook House immigration removal centre beside Gatwick Airport, south of London on June 12, 2022.   -  
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NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP or licensors

United Kingdom

The controversial plan to deport migrants who arrived clandestinely in the UK to Rwanda was declared unlawful on Thursday by the British court of appeal due to safety concerns, much to the dismay of the government, which has announced that it will appeal to the supreme Court.

The court explained that Rwanda cannot currently be considered a safe third country as there is a real threat that those sent to the east African country will be returned to their country of origin where they may have been subject to persecution and inhumane treatment.

“The deficiencies in the asylum system in Rwanda are such that there are substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that persons sent to Rwanda will be returned to their home countries where they faced persecution or other inhumane treatment, when in fact they have a good claim for asylum. In that sense, Rwanda is not a safe third country,” said Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett.

"Unless and until the deficiencies in its asylum process are corrected, sending asylum seekers to Rwanda will be unlawful," the court stressed in a summary of the judgment. 

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he fundamentally disagreed with the decision and announced that his government would seek permission to refer the matter to the Supreme Court.

"The policy of this government is very simple, it is this country, and your government, that must decide who comes here, not criminal gangs," he said in a statement, claiming he would do "whatever is necessary" to implement it. "Rwanda is a safe country," he insisted. 

Fears of persecution

The fight against illegal immigration is one of the priorities of Mr. Sunak's government.

Despite Brexit promises to "take back control" of borders, more than 45,000 migrants crossed the Channel from France in small boats in 2022, a record. And there are more than 11,000 this year to have done the same.

The Court of Appeal made it clear that its decision did not imply "any view whatsoever on the political merits" of this measure, and that its only concern was to judge whether this policy complied with the law.

Despite this decision, "Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership" with the UK "work", Kigali government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo explained.

"While this decision ultimately rests with the British judiciary, we dispute the fact that Rwanda is not considered a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers", she added.

In terms of human rights, however, Rwanda is regularly criticized for its harsh repression of political opposition and its lack of respect for freedom of expression.

Changing course

Hailing a "rare piece of good news in the UK's grim human rights landscape", the country director of Human Rights Watch, Yasmine Ahmed, urged Home Secretary Suella Braverman to "abandon this feverish, impractical and unethical dream".

This ruling "offers the government the opportunity to change course", she added: "Rather than treating human beings as cargo to be shipped elsewhere, it should focus on ending the hostile environment towards refugees and asylum seekers".

Last December, London's High Court gave the green light to the deportation of certain illegal migrants to Rwanda, deeming the scheme legal.

The project has since been put on hold due to legal challenges.

However, the judges agreed to consider an appeal by several applicants and Charity Aid, which provides legal support to asylum seekers. They denounce the project as "systemically unjust", and believe that asylum seekers who are expelled to Rwanda risk persecution there.

No expulsions have yet taken place. A first flight scheduled for June 2022 was cancelled after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) called for a thorough review of the policy.

The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was announced when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, in a bid to discourage illegal crossings of the English Channel.

In 2021, 27 people lost their lives trying to cross this strait, one of the busiest in the world. At least four more died last year.

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