UK's 'Safety of Rwanda' Bill Sets Perilous Precedent: Human Rights Concerns Ignite Debate

By Adam Seymour/ GICJ


It has been two years since British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (April 2022) launched the controversial “Rwanda deal” to attempt to deport asylum seekers to a third country - that being Rwanda. Despite the UK's plan to deport asylum seekers to the African country, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has since intervened (June 2022) to ensure that this plan was halted due to significant evidence presented of the great risks to the welfare of those seeking asylum; including inhumane treatment  should they  be sent there.

The Rwanda plan, according to the British government, is designed to deter unauthorised immigration, including by small boats . However, despite the government’s intentions, nobody has yet been sent to Rwanda because of legal challenges. Since the failures in 2022 to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda , the government has moved to bypass any future challenges by creating the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 which has now received Royal Assent and became law. This is a significant point, as the UK Supreme Court does not have the power to remove legislation passed by the UK Parliament. Therefore, since UK courts cannot overrule legislation, this could be interpreted as the UK Government seeking to ensure that any future legal action is not viable, rendering any further UK Supreme Court ruling regarding the 'Rwanda Plan' obsolete.  

Additionally, at the same time, the UK’s Treaty (agreement) with Rwanda was ratified. This means that the treaty has become legally binding upon the UK and Rwanda despite grave reservations voiced by the UK Supreme Court (November 2023) and a considerable number of Human Rights organisations.

This article will address the circumstances and pitfalls associated with the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024, which clearly violates a wide range of principles associated with the Refugee Convention (1951) . The introduction of this new legislation shifts the UK's asylum responsibilities to another state, in contrast to the responsibility-sharing foreseen by the Refugee Convention. In addition, this article will illuminate specific concerns associated with article 33 of the Refugee Convention (1951) relating to the Prohibition of expulsion or return ("refoulement") in conjunction with the UK Rwanda bill.

UK Supreme Court ruling

In November 2023, the highest court in the UK ruled against the Rwanda plan, stating that the Rwandan policy was unlawful. This decision was based on substantial evidence presented, which identified tangible risks to the well-being and asylum status of individuals. The Court concluded that claims would not be properly determined by the Rwandan authorities, raising real concerns about the risk of refoulement .

The Supreme Court further elaborated its concerns and ruling, stating:

1.     “It [the principle of non-refoulement] is a core principle of international law, to which the United Kingdom Government has repeatedly committed itself on the international stage, consistently with this country’s reputation for developing and upholding the rule of law” .

The issue of non-refoulement also undermines and defies Britain's commitment to the previously signed Refugee Convention (1951), which asserts that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This finding is further substantiated by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has also provided significant evidence of Rwanda’s history of refoulement, and raised concerns about refoulement related to deficiencies in Rwanda’s current refugee adjudication system.

2.    The UK Supreme Court also found that 'the right of appeal to the High Court [against refusals of asylum] is completely untested.' This would pose a significant problem if asylum seekers were deported to Rwanda, as it would limit opportunities to appeal their case.

Upon reviewing data, the UK Government confirmed that many appeals from refugees to the UK ended up being overturned, allowing these individuals to remain and gain official asylum status. For instance, in the year ending March 2023, 4,300 appeals were lodged on initial decisions. Of those appeals, around half (53%) were allowed, meaning the Home Office had to reverse its initial decision to grant asylum status to over half of the applicants. This further emphasises the point made by the UK Supreme Court regarding issues concerning Rwanda. It is imperative that countries have the right and option to appeal their cases, as well as a tried and tested procedure to process possible future appeals. This is something that the UK Supreme Court found lacking in Rwanda's asylum framework.

3.    The Supreme Court also identified structural shortcomings in the Rwandan legal system, including noting that the Rwandan authorities refused all asylum claims from Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen in 2020-2022, despite those countries having grant rates previously of up to 98% in the UK .

According to the UK’s own national statistics (as of November 2023), a large proportion of these seeking asylum were from Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Syria . Additionally, these nationalities have high rates of successful application acceptance, indicating that they are genuine asylum seekers. This further underscores the danger and concern for their safety if they are deported from the UK under the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act.

Human Rights Concerns

According to various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) , the UK through its implementation of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act is attempting to circumvent the UK Supreme Court ruling from last November 2023 in order to forcibly remove asylum seekers. NGOs have claimed that by establishing a bilateral agreement between Rwanda and the UK under the legislation of the Safety of the Rwanda Act, the UK government is ensuring that it does not need to adhere to the recommendations and publications set out by the UK Supreme Court regarding Rwanda as a safe third country. This not only damages democracy and disregards the UK legal system and principles of justice, but also sets a dangerous precedent for disrupting future provisions concerning refugees and the protection of their human rights.

Whilst Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) recognises and acknowledges the challenges of increasing migration and asylum claims in Europe, for example, there were 1.37 million people claiming asylum in the EU, we also recognise that many  European countries are continuing to maintain their commitments and obligations defined within the parameters of the Refugee Convention (1951), something we strongly encourage the UK to consider when devising its own legislation concerning the question of asylum. While we acknowledge the challenge, the UK received 97,390 asylum applicants, constituting only 7% of the total asylum applicants across the European Union (EU).

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) strongly opposes the Asylum and Immigration Act, urging the British government to reconsider its rollout. We encourage the UK government to reflect on the outcomes illuminated by the UK Supreme Court, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). GICJ respectfully requests a reconsideration of the British government’s position and encourages it to prioritise vulnerable people seeking refuge and asylum over party politics. Many political commentators  have suggested that such legislation is politically motivated to win an up-and-coming general election in the UK, something which we identify as  callous and immoral.

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