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Protesters stand outside the Supreme Court in London, on Nov. 15. Britain's highest court upheld a ruling that the government's plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to press ahead with a controversial policy to send thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda despite a Supreme Court ruling that said the current agreement between the countries was unlawful.

In an unanimous decision released Wednesday, five Supreme Court justices upheld an appeal court decision that found the deal struck between Rwanda and Britain was illegal because Rwanda could not be considered a safe country.

The evidence “establishes substantial grounds for believing that there is a real risk that asylum claims will not be determined properly, and that asylum seekers will in consequence be at risk of being returned directly or indirectly to their country of origin,” the court found.

The ruling is a major blow to one of Mr. Sunak’s main priorities – stopping small boats filled with migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries from crossing the English Channel from France. This year more than 27,000 people have made the dangerous journey and several have died.

Mr. Sunak has argued that the agreement with Rwanda, reached in April, 2022, would help clear the backlog of refugee claims and act as a deterrent to criminal gangs who operate people-smuggling rings.

Under the deal, Britain planned to deport illegal migrants to Rwanda, where their refugee claims would be processed. Britain agreed to cover the costs of running the program and so far it has paid the Rwandan government around £140-million ($237.7-million).

However, no migrants have been sent to Rwanda because the agreement has been tied up in legal challenges that culminated in Wednesday’s decision.

Mr. Sunak expressed frustration at the ruling but said the government would renegotiate the agreement to address the issues raised by the court. He also promised to introduce legislation to designate Rwanda as a safe country.

That designation “will ensure that people cannot further delay flights by bringing systemic challenges in our domestic courts and stop our policy being repeatedly blocked,” he said during a press conference.

The Prime Minister is also facing pressure from Conservative backbench MPs to override the European Convention on Human Rights, which intervened last year to prevent the Rwanda agreement from taking effect.

Britain was instrumental in creating the European convention in 1953 as well as the subsequent European Court of Human Rights. In June, 2022, the court issued an injunction to stop the first flight to Rwanda, ruling it was not a safe third country.

Mr. Sunak told reporters that he would take steps to ensure that the convention could not intervene in the future although he did not specify what action he would take.

“Let me just be clear, what I will not do is allow a foreign court to block our ability to get these flights off once a sovereign parliament has determined in law that Rwanda is a safe country for these purposes and meets all our obligations,” he said.

Mr. Sunak’s failed Rwanda policy has been bitterly attacked by several Tory MPs, including Suella Braverman, who the Prime Minister fired as Home Secretary on Monday. In a blistering letter to Mr. Sunak, Ms. Braverman accused him of “equivocation,” “magical thinking” and “betrayal.”

She said he had wasted a year in legal battles over the agreement without developing a credible Plan B. “I can only surmise that this is because you have no appetite for doing what is necessary, and therefore no real intention of fulfilling your pledge to the British people,” she wrote.

However, refugee advocates welcomed the court ruling and called on Mr. Sunak to scrap the agreement.

“This judgment is vital to protect people seeking asylum in this county, but the government must now draw a line under a disgraceful chapter in the U.K.’s political history,” said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive officer. “The deal with Rwanda – a country with a track record of serious human-rights violations, including arbitrary detention, torture and the repression of free speech – was massively ill-conceived and cruel.”

Rwandan human-rights activist Carine Kanimba said the Supreme Court ruling was “a victory for human dignity, affirming the importance of upholding humanitarian values in immigration policies.”

Ms. Kanimba is the daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, who rescued hundreds of Rwandans from the 1994 genocide by sheltering them at his hotel in Kigali in an episode that inspired the Hollywood film Hotel Rwanda. He later became an opponent of President Paul Kagame and in 2020 was tricked onto a flight to Rwanda, where he was placed on trial and imprisoned for two years on charges that he had links to an armed opposition group.

“Unfortunately, Rwandans there will continue to suffer under the dictatorship,” Ms. Kanimba said in a social media post after the court ruling.

In its decision the Supreme Court noted that Britain has been highly critical of Rwanda’s human-rights record in the past. In 2021, British officials chastised Rwanda for “extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture,” the court said.

The Supreme Court also accepted much of the evidence of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees. The UNHCR told the court that the Rwandan government’s system for processing refugee claims was inadequate and authorities have virtually no experience with asylum applications from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a statement, the United Nations agency said it welcomed the decision. “The UNHCR has consistently conveyed our deep concern about the ‘externalization’ of asylum obligations and the serious risks it poses for refugees.”

The agency said it recognizes the challenges presented by irregular arrivals across the Channel, but it called on Britain to co-operate with its European neighbours “in the spirit of responsibility-sharing which lies at the core of the Refugee Convention.”

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