Rwanda Plan: breakdown of the judgment

This article will summarise the key facts of the recent High Court ruling on the UK government’s policy of sending unsuccessful asylum seekers to Rwanda, the critiques of the ruling as well as the implications the ruling will have on the future of immigration control and human rights. This article will also explore whether the Rwanda policy is an effective deterrent against small boat crossings and an effective use of the public purse and resources. 

In December 2022, the UK High Court passed an influential and controversial judgment. In the judgment, the Court held that the government’s much criticised policy to send unsuccessful asylum seekers to Rwanda is lawful. The case at the Court involved eight asylum seekers from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, Albania and Sudan who argued that their asylum requests should be reviewed in the UK and not in Rwanda, reasoning that their claims would not be sufficiently examined in the country. They also argued that the Home Secretary’s legal analysis, which surmised that the East-Central African country was a “safe country”, was flawed. Asylum seekers highlighted that if sent to Rwanda, they would face maltreatment, which would amount to a human rights violation, and contended that the UK government sharing their data with the Rwandan authorities before their claims had been concluded was unlawful. Other arguments contested the fairness of government procedure, highlighting how it punishes asylum seeking (which is against international law) and discriminates against young male asylum seekers from countries (except Ukraine). The case saw interventions from NGOs, one border force officers’ union as well as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Court disagreed with the asylum seekers, finding that the Home Secretary had taken reasonable steps in her analysis to conclude that Rwanda is a “safe country”. The Court also maintained this despite human rights abuses against dissidents and political asylum seekers, as highlighted by the asylum seekers’ legal team. Furthermore, it is permissible for the Home Office to contact Rwandan authorities regarding an asylum application before its conclusion and lawful to share data before an application is settled, if reasoned in the name of public interest. Against the grain of public opinion, the Court found that any indirect discrimination against male asylum seekers of certain nationalities is justified. The judgment also found that the process used for the Rwanda decisions is fair and that there is no need for asylum seekers to have legal representation during the process or legal advice before their screening interview. The Court concluded that the policy does not punish asylum seekers.

Since the UK is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has the High Court erred in its ruling that the Rwanda policy does not violate Article 31 (non-penalty for “illegal” entry) and Article 33 (non-refoulement) of the Convention? Arguably, yes. It is baffling that the Court considered credible human rights reports (from Human Rights Watch and the General Human Rights in Rwanda) to be irrelevant to its analysis of Rwanda as a safe country. These reports specifically highlight the treatment of protesting asylum seekers and political dissidents respectively. Sending those fleeing persecution to a country with an unsatisfactory human rights record does little but extend their suffering. Furthermore, the government’s travel advice on Rwanda states that LGBTQIA+ people suffer discrimination and abuse, “including from local authorities”, and that there is a lack of legal protection for LGBTQIA+ people. Enver Solomon (Chief Executive of the Refugee Council) wrote in The Guardian that the policy “takes punishment of fellow human beings to a new level“.

This case shows that the “depressing and distressing” policy is here to stay (unless there is success on the partial appeal at the Court of Appeal). It is also a stark reminder of the state of human rights post-Brexit, as the Home Office does not need to do a thorough examination of the asylum seekers’ claims, since EU law no longer applies to the UK. This fits into the backdrop of a wider regression of human rights which have been upheld by the judiciary when challenged (e.g: the deprivation of citizenship in the Shamima Begum case). Given that the government is considering leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, the precedent set by this case will play a more significant role in future deportations to Rwanda, as asylum seekers will not have the protection of the ECHR to challenge any Home Office decision. 

Until then, the next steps will be the Court of Appeal, with no flights commencing whilst appeals are underway, and continued advocacy by Asylum NGOs and legal teams on an individual case by case basis. The operation and impact of the Rwanda Plan still remains to be seen, however the Australian offshoring model provides the UK with a cautionary tale: it did not intercept the smuggling business model, slow migration numbers nor protect refugees from criminal gangs. It also created the highest rates of mental illness amongst detainees ever recorded.

To those who oppose the Rwanda Plan, the silver lining remains the huge undertaking of an offshoring scheme. The Home Office will need to make “legally defensible decisions in individual cases” to deport anyone, and UK 2021 figures show only 113 asylum seekers were successfully removed. Leading immigration barrister Colin Yeo stresses the history of abandoned Home Office schemes and suggests the plan serves more as a “distraction from the asylum backlog and other issues”. On the other side of the process, Rwanda has only agreed to accept a few hundred asylum seekers per year, which begs the question – with £140 million already banked, could its government be relying on a failure within the chain of command? In any case, Rwanda has no need to overextend its end of the bargain. 

Set against a historical low in successful deportations, the Rwanda Plan reveals more than a hemorrhage of time and public resources, but a UK government with little to offer. Instead of building an accessible asylum system with opportunities for refugee self-reliance, the ‘out of sight’ mentality remains the UK’s preferred option. With maze-like bureaucracy and a huge asylum backlog, is the Home Office even benefitting from further unworkable proposals? And most importantly – is offshoring our problems really a sustainable approach? 

International Day of Education

In light of the International Day of Education (24 January), it is timely to reflect on the recent ban on women attending university, the limitations for girls in secondary schools, and the restriction on women
educators in Afghanistan. UNESCO dedicates its fifth edition of the International Day to all the girls and women in Afghanistan, who have been denied their right to learn, study and teach. Director-General Ms. Audrey Azoulay states,

“The Organization condemns this serious attack on human dignity and on the fundamental right to education. With these persistent threats towards the advancement of education and careers… the future is seemingly bleak. To many, the threat towards education has been imminent, yet many still held hope onto the Taliban’s earlier statements reassuring the public of them upholding human rights obligations”.

After a 20-year war and the collapse of the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban took back power in August of 2021. With many fearing and questioning this ‘new’ regime, the Taliban promised they would abide to various human rights obligations, specifically reassuring that, “our sisters and our men have the same rights,” and that they were “committed to the rights of women” within the context of their interpretation of Islamic mandates”. Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Minister of Higher Education, also promised, “the people of Afghanistan will continue their higher education in the light of sharia law in safety without being in a mixed male and female

However, these were empty promises, as the Taliban first showcased their power by gradually impeding on these rights a month into power. In September 2021, women were only permitted in universities that adhered to gender-segregated classrooms with strict dress code rules, and were
only taught by professors of the same sex or older men. And the threat to education did not stop there: in March 2022, all girls’ secondary schools were shut down, with the students being instructed to stay home till further notice. This restriction was then bolstered by the Minister of Higher Education’s announcement that women’s education would be suspended in December – “no PhD or master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the Mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no PhD, masters or even a high school degree, but they are the greatest of all”.

The Taliban insists that these measures are backed up by their interpretation of Islamic teachings, yet we have seen several leaders from Muslim-majority countries condemn their actions. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed their astonishment and regret of the Taliban’s backtracking on their initial statement, compelling them to “reverse this decision, which is astonishing in all Islamic countries” and give “Afghan women their full legitimate rights, foremost of which is the right to education, which contributes to supporting security, stability, development and prosperity for Afghanistan”. Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also urged the end of the ban and expressed their concern and disappointment towards the regime. The UAE representative for the UN declared the Taliban’s actions aimed to erase women and girls from public life, further stating that the ban would “violate fundamental human rights, contravene the teachings of Islam, and must be swiftly
reversed”. The Secretary-General for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation believes that these bans and restrictions will ruin the government’s already failing credibility, but most importantly deny girls and women access to their fundamental rights.

It is important to remember that before the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, Afghanistan benefitted from an inclusive education system, where women and girls took up 50% of Kabul University’s population (both individually within student and teacher populations), as well as 70% of the country’s
schoolteachers, 50% of civilian government workers, and 40% of doctors. With the enrolment of girls drastically increasing from 100,000 (2000) to over 3.5 million in recent years, many fear these numbers will severely dwindle with the new bans and restrictions.

The Taliban has a history of impeding on human rights. It is pertinent that not only are their actions scrutinised and condemned, but most importantly as a global community that we strive and actively contribute to protecting the rights of these girls and women, many of whom have only endured hardship and strife.