UK Supreme Court weighs if it's lawful for Britain to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda

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LONDON (AP) — The British government's contentious policy to stem the flow of migrants faces one of its toughest challenges this week as the U.K. Supreme Court weighs whether it’s lawful to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

The Conservative government is challenging a Court of Appeal ruling in June that said the policy intended to deter immigrants from risking their lives crossing the English Channel in small boats is unlawful because the East African country is not a safe place to send them.

Three days of arguments are scheduled to begin Monday with the government arguing its policy is safe and lawyers for migrants from Vietnam, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Sudan contending it's unlawful and inhumane.

The hearing comes as much of Europe and the U.S. struggle with how best to cope with migrants seeking refuge from war, violence, oppression and a warming planet that has brought devastating drought and floods.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to “stop the boats” as a top priority to curb unauthorized immigration. More than 25,000 people are estimated to have arrived in the U.K. by boat as of Oct. 2, which is down nearly 25% from the 33,000 that had made the crossing at the same time last year.

The policy is intended to put a stop to the criminal gangs that ferry migrants across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes by making Britain an unattractive destination because of the likelihood of being given a one-way ticket to Rwanda.

Consequences of the crossing have been deadly. In August, six migrants died and about 50 had to be rescued when their boat capsized after leaving the northern coast of France. In November 2021, 27 people died after their boat sank.

The government claims the policy is a fair way to deal with an influx of people who arrive on U.K. shores without authorization and that Rwanda is a safe “third country” — meaning it’s not where they are seeking asylum from.

The U.K. and Rwandan governments reached a deal more than a year ago that would send asylum-seekers to the East African country and allow them to stay there if granted asylum.

So far, not a single person has been sent there as the policy has been fought over in the courts.

Human rights groups have argued its inhumane to deport people more than 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) to a place they don’t want to live. They have also cited Rwanda’s poor human rights record, including allegations of torture and killings of government opponents.

A High Court judge initially upheld the policy, saying it didn't breach Britain’s obligations under the U.N. Refugee Convention or other international agreements. But that ruling was reversed by a 2-1 decision in the Court of Appeal that found that while it was not unlawful to send asylum-seekers to a safe third country, Rwanda could not be deemed safe.

The government argues the Court of Appeal had no right to interfere with the lower court decision and got it wrong by concluding deportees would be endangered in Rwanda and could face the prospect of being sent back to their home country where they could face persecution. The U.K. also says that the court should have respected the government's analysis that determined Rwanda is safe and and that its government would abide by the terms of the agreement to protect migrants' rights.

Attorneys for the migrants argue that there is a real risk their clients could be tortured, punished, or face inhumane and degrading treatment in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and they cite Rwanda's history of abusing refugees for dissent. The second flank of their argument is that the home secretary did not thoroughly investigate how Rwanda determines the status of refugees.

One of the claimants asserts that the U.K. must still abide by European Union asylum procedures despite its Brexit split from the EU that became final in 2020. EU policies only allow asylum-seekers to be sent to a safe third country if they have a connection to it.

Even if the courts allow the policy to proceed, it's unclear how many people will be flown to Rwanda at a cost estimated to be 169,000 pounds ($206,000) per person.

And there's a chance it wouldn't be in place for long. The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, said Sunday that he would scrap the policy if elected prime minister.

Polls show Labour has an advantage in an election that must be called by the end of next year.

"I think it’s the wrong policy, it’s hugely expensive,” Starmer told the BBC.

The court is not expected to rule immediately after the hearing.

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Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration