By Michael Holden and Sam Tobin
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda is illegal because the East African country is not a safe country, lawyers for a group of asylum seekers told the London Appeal Court on Monday.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government wants to send thousands of migrants more than 4,000 miles (6,400km) to Rwanda as part of a £140m ($174m) deal agreed last year.
He considers the plan pivotal to deter record numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in small boats across the Channel from France, something Sunak has made one of his top five priorities, facing pressure from some of his own Conservative lawmakers and the public to resolve the problem.
However, the first scheduled flight to Rwanda last June was blocked by a last-minute ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, which imposed an injunction barring any deportations until the legal action in Great Britain is concluded. Brittany.
In December, the High Court in London ruled that the policy was legitimate, but that decision was being challenged by asylum seekers from countries including Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran and Vietnam along with some human rights organisations.
Their lawyers say the government’s argument that Rwanda is a “safe third country” is flawed.
Raza Husain, one of their lawyers, told the Court of Appeal at the start of a four-day hearing that Rwanda was a one-party authoritarian state that did not tolerate the opposition and imprisoned, tortured and killed opponents.
“There will only be any form of deterrent effect if a third country asylum seekers are being transferred to is one they would not like to go to,” Husain said, arguing that the government has failed to walk the line between deterring migrants and staying within Britain’s human rights obligations.
However, lawyers representing the British government have stressed that its deal with Rwanda is “subject to a stringent series of monitoring arrangements”, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which intervened in the appeal.
They said in court documents that the evidence on Rwanda’s asylum system was of little relevance as it bore no relation to how asylum-seekers would be treated under the deal with Britain.
Rwanda says migrants will be treated with respect and dignity and the deal will give them better opportunities.
Ian Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice and one of three judges hearing the case, said Rwanda’s security issue will be the central issue.
In March, the government announced it would introduce a new law that would prevent anyone arriving on a small boat from seeking asylum and being deported back to their home country or to a safe third country.
Sunak and his ministers say this would break the business model of human traffickers, but critics say it is impractical, unethical and won’t work.
More than 45,000 migrants arrived in small boats on England’s south coast in 2022, a record number, and in court documents last week, the government said it expected as many as 56,000 to cross the English Channel this year.
Faced with a backlog of applications, more than 100,000 asylum seekers are being accommodated by the government, around 50,000 of them in hotels, at a cost of £6.2m ($7.7m) a day.
(Reporting by Michael Holden and Sam Tobin; Editing by Nick Macfie)