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With immense relief, we heard The Court of Appeal’s ruling that it is unlawful to deport people from the UK to Rwanda. The case was brought forward by Asylum Aid and 10 asylum seekers who were considered for removal to Rwanda in May last year. The decision was made on the basis that Rwanda is not a safe third country because there is substantive evidence that anyone who is sent to Rwanda faces a genuine risk of removal to their home country, even where they have grounds for asylum, in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The High Court’s decision is timely as the Illegal Migration Bill reaches its final stages in the House of Lords. The Bill already left huge questions unanswered about how the Home Secretary would fulfil its duty to remove anyone who arrives in the UK via an irregular route, given that the vast majority of people to whom this applies face persecution in their home country. The government was relying on the ability to remove people to Rwanda for the unworkable Bill to have any semblance of feasibility. As anticipated by its many critics, the judgement validates that the Bill, if passed, will exacerbate existing problems with our immigration system. Given the impossibility of carrying out its purpose, it will only increase the undocumented population in the UK, leaving more people trapped in a state of limbo, devoid of rights or the ability to legally work.

The ruling reaffirms that what is needed is a drastic change in approach to immigration. The current approach, of deterrence and scapegoating are at the at the expense both to UK communities and to immigrant communities. It was 14 months ago when the plan was first announced by the government, who hailed it as “world leading” and “innovative”. Since this point the government has poured huge amounts of investment into the plan, both financially and politically. This investment has been matched by a human cost which cannot be quantified. The plans may not have been realised but their repercussions were acutely felt by those directly impacted. Detention centre accounts included individuals fearing for their lives and contemplating suicide, all due to the threat of being sent to Rwanda:

‘I will kill myself if they send me to Rwanda, my dream was to come here… I have two children in Egypt… I want to make money to send to them.’(HMIP report Brook House, 2022)

It is no exaggeration to say that the High Court ruling has saved lives. It is a huge success and a testament to the bravery of the people who brought their case forward and to Asylum Aid. However, the law cannot do everything. Whilst the appellants were successful, they did not prevail on all grounds. Notably, the Court did not find that deportation to Rwanda would breach Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, which prohibits penalizing refugees for their irregular entry or presence.

We must remember that the Refugee Convention was born from the experience of individuals like Gerrit Jan Van Heuven Goedhart, the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations. Van Heuven Goedhart's personal history as a forcibly displaced person informed the very essence of Article 31. Van Heuven Goedhart escaped to England via the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Adamant that the Refugee Convention must recognise this, Van Heuven Goedhart argued that:

It would be very unfortunate if a refugee in similar circumstances was penalized for not having proceeded direct to the country of asylum. If the international protection of refugees is to mean anything it must mean that refugees are at least able to see and talk to a representative of the authority which is supposed to be protecting them.”

Whatever the law might say, it is nigh impossible to reconcile the plans to deport people to Rwanda with the spirit of which the Refugee Convention was born. We must reimagine the Refugee Convention to align with our shared humanity and the current reality rather than regress from its original intentions. This will require a collective effort, bringing together communities and individuals with firsthand experience of displacement. The High Court Ruling and the numerous other ways that the plans to deport people to Rwanda have been resisted instil much-needed hope that this is possible.

Our current government may be unwilling to reimagine a compassionate response to migration, but we can and we will.

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