British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government would appeal to the UK’s top court after its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was declared unlawful.
The ruling by the court serves as a major blow to the prime minister’s pledge to stop asylum seekers arriving in small boats.
Under an initial 140-million-pound ($177 million) deal struck in 2022, Britain planned to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive on its shores a distance of more than 4,000 miles (6,400 km) to the East African country.
The government has argued that the plan would smash the business model of human traffickers, but critics say the policy is inhumane and will not work.
On Thursday the Court of Appeal concluded by a majority of two to one ruled that Rwanda could not be treated as a safe third country.
“While I respect the court I fundamentally disagree with their conclusions,” Sunak said in a statement, adding that the government would seek to overturn the decision in the UK Supreme Court.
“The policy of this government is very simple. It is this country – and your government – that should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs,” he continued.
“And I will do whatever is necessary to make that happen,” he insisted.
The ruling comes as a huge blow for Sunak as he grapples with high inflation, rising interest rates, and declining public support amid growing pressure from his party and the public to tackle rising numbers of asylum seekers costing the government 3 billion pounds a year to accommodate.
Sunak has made “stop the boats” one of his five top priorities, and hopes a fall in arrivals might help his Conservative Party, trailing by about 20 points in opinion polls, pull off an unexpected win at the next national election.
The first planned Rwanda deportation flight was blocked a year ago in a last-minute ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which imposed an injunction preventing any deportations until the conclusion of legal action in Britain.
In December, the High Court ruled that the policy was lawful, but that decision was challenged by asylum seekers from several countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Iran, along with human rights organisations.
The appeal court ruled deficiencies in Rwanda’s asylum system meant there were substantial grounds for believing that those sent there would be returned to their home nations where they face “persecution or other inhumane treatment”.
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman has been a key proponent of the scheme, in a bid to crack down on undocumented migrants entering the UK.
The government said the program is aimed at blocking people-smuggling networks and preventing migrants from making the treacherous sea journey across the Channel to England from France.
The home secretary is part of a legacy of pro-Brexit politicians who say it is necessary for Britain to “take control” of its borders.
She has drawn criticism for couching her agenda in flagrant rhetoric, previously railing against what she calls an “invasion” of migrants.
Human rights campaigners welcomed the ruling on Thursday, having slammed the Rwanda policy as unethical and ineffective.
“This is a HUGE win. The UK wants hope not hostility,” tweeted Together with Refugees, a coalition of charities promoting asylum-seekers’ rights.
The number of undocumented people entering Europe has spiraled this year due to conflict, global inequality and the climate crisis, exacerbating a migrant crisis across the continent.
More than 36,000 people crossed the Mediterranean from January to March this year, nearly twice the number in the same period in 2022, according to figures from the UN’s refugee agency.
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