Rwanda Supreme Court showdown: What do we know?

The UK Supreme Court case will consider the fate of the government’s controversial plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The outcome is far from certain – and the full story is far more complex than headlines suggest.

Let’s go back to the beginning.

The UK is a member of the Refugee Convention – the international law that says it will consider the cases of people who arrive in the country seeking asylum.

It’s very difficult to seek asylum in the UK – so people have increasingly arrived with the help of smugglers.

The government says that these people who could have claimed asylum in France, or elsewhere in the EU, should not be coming to the UK at all.

So three prime ministers ago in April last year, the government struck a deal with Rwanda in which the African nation agreed to take some of these asylum applicants off the UK’s hands. It’s been paid £140m so far to do so – and it remains totally unclear how many it would ever take, even if the scheme ever gets to operate.

Back in 2022, the then Home Secretary Priti Patel ordered that 47 English Channel-crossing migrants could be put on the first flight. That fell to just seven by the planned departure date of 14 June.

But lawyers acting for the migrants asked the High Court to stop the flight ahead of a full legal challenge to the Rwanda plan.

A judge refused to stop it, saying the flight should be allowed to leave before the scheme was considered – and more senior judges ruled there was nothing wrong with his decision.

But as the plane was being prepared, a judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg blocked the take-off.

It said British judges must be allowed time to fully assess the policy – and that’s what has been happening ever since.

What do we know about the asylum seekers?

The Supreme Court justices aren’t considering the merits of the ten individual cases – but each of them have very different stories to tell.

Three of the men fled Syria to avoid conscription into armed forces in the continuing chaos since its awful civil war.

One of them left five years ago and came to the UK after living for a while in Turkey because other members of his family have come here.

Another man is from Iran and says he was shot at by police for being part of a political campaign against the regime.

Court papers show that one of the men, from Iraq, left fearing for his life after discovering his wife in bed with the bodyguard of a powerful intelligence chief.

One man, known only as HTN, is from Vietnam. Papers show he came to Europe after a financial debt led to death threats.

He first went to Ukraine – only to be caught up in war – and then came to the UK.

Another Iranian man in the case told British officials that he had been granted asylum protection in Greece two years earlier. But he and his son left, applied again in Germany, and only then came to the UK.

Whatever your thoughts about the merits of those cases, the High Court ruled that none of the men had been given a chance to put their case before they were put on the list for Rwanda.

So while the court decided last December that the Rwanda scheme was lawful, the home secretary had, by that point, nobody to send anyway.

The case then moved to the Court of Appeal – and that’s where things got trickier for the government.

In late June, it ruled by a majority of two judges to one that there were so many problems with Rwanda’s asylum system that asylum seekers sent there could be forced back to the country they had originally fled from.

If that happened, the UK will have broken the international ban on putting people at risk of torture – part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The single judge who disagreed – the then Lord Chief Justice – said the risk wasn’t realistic.

What happens now?

The main task for the Supreme Court is to consider who is right over the legal tests for assessing Rwanda’s asylum system and that risk of torture.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeal, then the Rwanda plan, in its current form, is dead.

Such a judgment could, in specific circumstances, have implications for any alternative later deals to send people to different countries.

But what happens if the government wins?

In theory, ministers need just 12 days notice to send a flight to Rwanda.

In practice it could take longer – a lot longer.

Individuals in this case – or newly identified passengers – who are given a ticket could have a shot of getting their case into the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

People walking across after alighting a boat which can be seen in the background

Migrants coming ashore in Kent

Would it be prepared to intervene again?

The Strasbourg court’s very specifically intervened last year because of a complaint that British judges had not had proper time to look at the scheme.

Any attempt to take a case to the court would have to show that UK judges have somehow failed to consider all the human rights issues, despite 16 months of arguments in court.

But what if Strasbourg tried to stop a flight again? The home secretary could have another card to play.

She has a new untested power, thanks to the recently-passed Illegal Migration Act, to ignore an interim order from the ECtHR.

But guess what? An attempt to use that … could lead to new attempted challenges.

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