Rwanda is “less attractive” than the UK but a safe country to deport asylum seekers to, the Government has told the Supreme Court.
The Home Office is challenging a Court of Appeal ruling from June that the multimillion-pound deal – which would see asylum seekers deported to the east African nation – was unlawful.
At the start of the three-day hearing on Monday, Sir James Eadie KC, for the Home Office, told the UK’s highest court that the policy to remove people to “a country less attractive” than the UK, “but nevertheless safe”, is lawful.
“The appeal is, at its heart, about the judgments made by Government about the future conduct of a friendly foreign state – Rwanda,” Sir James told a panel of five justices.
Sir James said the Government has attached “considerable importance” to its Rwanda deportation policy.
He told the hearing in London there is “a serious and pressing need to take effective steps that will act as a deterrent to those undertaking the perilous and sometimes life-threatening journey, typically across the Channel, from a safe country”.
Sir James later referenced concerns that had been raised over the policy and Rwanda’s history, including by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.
The barrister continued: “Both the Government and the Rwandan government were fully aware of the likely controversy of the arrangements that were made when the deal was signed.”
The barrister added: “Whatever debates there might have been… it is, at best, peripheral. This is a new context with a new set of detailed arrangements.”
Sir James said that asylum seekers’ rights of review and appeal were “embedded” in the deal with Rwanda, which also “guaranteed” access to legal support.
In written arguments, he added that transfers to the east African nation “will take place only with the consent of the Rwandan authorities and numbers will, in the first instance, be low”.
He said the “independently monitored” deal and assurances were designed to ensure anyone sent to Rwanda “will have a safe and effective determination of their asylum claim” that is compatible with human rights conventions.
The UNHCR, which has intervened in the legal challenges over the policy, previously said Rwanda “lacks irreducible minimum components of an accessible, reliable, fair and efficient asylum system”.
In the agency’s written submissions to the Supreme Court, Angus McCullough KC said it had “consistently expressed grave concerns” about the safety and legality of the policy.
He continued: “UNHCR maintains its unequivocal warning against the transfer of asylum seekers to Rwanda under the UK-Rwanda Arrangement.”
Several asylum seekers who were set to be deported on the first planned flight to Rwanda in June 2022 – which was grounded minutes before take-off following a ruling by a judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – are opposing the appeal.
Raza Husain KC, for several of the asylum seekers in the case, described Rwanda at a previous hearing as “a highly autocratic repressive state” which “imprisons, tortures and murders those it considers to be its opponents”.
“On the one hand, for the deterrent purpose of removal to a third country to be successful, the third country must be a sufficiently unattractive location to an asylum seeker travelling to the UK.
“On the other hand, the third country must not be unattractive because it falls short of Article 3 (the right to be free from torture) and Refugee Convention standards.”
The hearing before Lords Reed, Hodge, Lloyd-Jones, Briggs and Sales is expected to end on Wednesday, with a judgment at a later date.
In their majority judgment at the Court of Appeal, Sir Geoffrey Vos and Lord Justice Underhill found there were “substantial grounds” to think that asylum seekers sent to Rwanda faced “real risks” of torture or inhuman treatment, or that their claims for asylum would not be properly determined in the east African nation.
The ruling overturned the High Court’s finding that Rwanda could be considered a “safe third country” for asylum seekers.
Sir Geoffrey noted it was accepted the UK Government has “huge experience of diplomatic relations” with the Rwandan authorities.
However, he added: “I do not accept that the past and the present can either be ignored or sidelined as the Home Office suggests.”
Shortly after the decision, which was seen as a setback in his bid to “stop the boats”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he “fundamentally” disagreed with the ruling and intended to appeal.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she remained “fully committed” to the policy and, despite the ruling, said she still had “every confidence” in the plan while stressing that Rwanda was a safe country.
Immigration featured heavily at the recent Conservative Party conference, with Mr Sunak saying he “will do whatever is necessary to stop the boats”.