Britain’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful, London’s Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday, in a major setback for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who has pledged to stop migrants arriving across the Channel in small boats.
Under a deal struck last year, Britain’s government planned to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive on its shores more than 4,000 miles (6,400 km) to the East African country.
The first planned 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 the policy was lawful, but that decision was challenged by asylum seekers from several countries along with human rights organisations.
Announcing the Court of Appeal’s decision, three senior appeal judges ruled, by a majority, that Rwanda could not be treated as a safe third country.
“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 face persecution or other inhumane treatment,” judge Ian Burnett said.
Burnett said he himself disagreed with the other two judges on this point.
The ruling is a huge blow for Sunak who is dealing with stubbornly high levels of inflation, declining public support, and is under increasing pressure from his own party and the public to deal with migrant arrivals in small boats.
Sunak has made “stop the boats” one of five priorities, and is hoping a fall in arrivals might help his Conservative Party pull off an unexpected win at the next national election.