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Rwanda was a colossal waste of time and money. Now Sunak should take the blame

The Supreme Court’s judgement makes clear that this was a plan that would never have worked

Photo: Kin Cheung - WPA Pool/Getty Images

There will inevitably be a lot of outrage in the newspapers tomorrow, probably largely aimed at “unelected judges” blocking the policies of a democratically-elected government (though they will need to fudge that the office of prime minister has changed hands twice since that vote).

Such fury would, however, be completely misplaced, as anyone who actually takes the time to read the Supreme Court’s judgment on the Home Office’s Rwanda programme will discover. That Suella Braverman wasted public time and money on a plan this badly conceived – £1.5million alone gone on a press trip to the country for journalists she considered “onside” – should be a scandal in itself. 

That it has distracted from solutions to actually improve the UK’s asylum system is another. Its pointless cruelty and dereliction of international responsibilities should, in my view, be a third scandal – but not all voters would agree.

Firstly, though, a quick reminder of how the Rwanda scheme would have worked. It is important to stress that this was not about processing asylum claims in Rwanda, or deporting failed asylum seekers after checking their claims to that country.

Instead, the UK would take a portion of its asylum seekers, and offshore them to Rwanda – who would then decide whether or not they were legitimate refugees. If they were found to be legitimate, they would have the right to stay in Rwanda (but no right to come to the UK). If they were not, they would be returned to their home country. 

For a country like the UK, which already takes a minute share of the world’s refugees, to outsource that responsibility for cash to a much poorer country with a fairly terrible human rights record is abhorrent in itself, but the Supreme Court was not ruling on that. 

Instead, it was ruling on a much narrower question: could the UK be confident that asylum seekers would have their claims processed fairly, and not be improperly returned to a country where they may then face human rights violations?

The Supreme Court’s answer was stark and unanimous: it could not. Here is where it starts to get staggering that Braverman, Sunak, and the Home Office continued to pursue this plan. Almost one in ten asylum claims in Rwanda all but disappear – a rejection of sorts – before they even get referenced to the agency that is supposed to process them, leaving them with no appeal because they don’t even have a rejection from the right body.

Application to the correct body are similarly baffling, with one sentence form letters giving no details as to the decision – making appeals all but impossible. Last year, only five formal appeals were even filed. The final stage of the process is the only independent one, allowing an asylum seeker to appeal to a nominally independent court – except we don’t know how that would work in practice because no-one has ever done it.

The Home Office either must have known Rwanda’s system was this inadequate or else is even more incompetent than everyone believes it to be. Most staggering was this statistic: from 2020-2022 Rwanda rejected 100% of all asylum claims from Syria and Afghanistan (common countries of origin for UK asylum seekers). The UK in the same period accepted 98% of Syrian refugees and 74% of Afghans. 

Given we would be sending such people to Rwanda under the scheme, to have pursued it would be to knowingly send legitimate refugees somewhere they would face being returned to their persecutors.

That is, of course, morally abhorrent. But it was also clearly never going to survive the UK Supreme Court, let alone the ECHR. This was always a waste of time and money for the cruellest kind of political point-scoring. 

As the Supreme Court made extremely clear, the UK has obligations under numerous treaties as well as customary international law to consider these issues – the magic word “notwithstanding” Braverman waved around in her post-sacking letter would not have changed a thing.

Most Brits are not, at their core, terrible people. What riles the public up about asylum seekers is seeing people who aren’t working being put up in hotels at great cost. The truth is, though, that’s not what asylum seekers want either. Most want to work, to rebuild their lives, in long-term accommodation.

The reason the hotels are full is that we are not processing asylum claims remotely quickly enough. The responsibility for that lies with the home secretary: staff up the teams handling the enquiries and you can accept genuine refugees more rapidly, and let them build a life of their own (with a job and eventually a home) in the UK – and you can deport people found not to be legitimate faster.

Not only was the Rwanda scheme cruel, it was a waste of everyone’s time and a distraction from real solutions – especially for the former home secretary and those around her. This ruling is a stark one, and kills off any hope of using Rwanda to house the UK’s refugees. 

The best hope from this is the government doesn’t do more than make some noises on it to appease its right flank, and then starts to do what might actually work – in this instance the more compassionate policy is also the more effective one. But this government can always find a reason not to do the right thing.

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