LEICESTER, United Kingdom – British Catholic groups have praised a UK Supreme Court decision stopping the conservative government’s plans to deport unregistered immigrants to Rwanda.

In April 2022, the UK government announced a plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, a decision that was challenged in courts.

On Wednesday, the UK Supreme Court said there are substantial grounds to believe that genuine refugees sent to Rwanda could be at risk of being returned to countries from which they have fled – where they could be subject to inhumane treatment.

The court also said there had not been a proper assessment of whether Rwanda was safe, despite the fact the Conservative government had argued that the African country had given clear and trustworthy diplomatic assurances that anyone sent there from the UK would be treated fairly and humanely.

However, the court looked at an intervention from the UN’s refugee agency which said Rwanda’s asylum system was deeply unfair – and officials could send migrants back to home countries where they had previously been persecuted or tortured.

Bishop Paul McAleenan, lead bishop for migrants and refugees for the bishops’ conference, said he was “greatly relieved” that the proposal to send those seeking asylum to Rwanda has been ruled unlawful.

“This was a policy that ignored the innate human dignity of those seeking sanctuary,” he said.

While the bishop said the ruling by the Supreme Court is to be welcomed, he added the Catholic Church will continue to advocate for an immigration system that places the human person at the center.

“Refugees are human beings made in the image and likeness of God, not a political problem to be solved. It is important to recognize the wonderful work of Catholic charities and civil society organizations that do so much to help migrants and refugees when they come to the UK,” McAleenan said.

“We will continue to pray for those who are on the move, as well as for the government that it will respect this ruling and respond to the needs of migrants and asylum seekers in a way that fully upholds their human dignity,” the bishop added.

Sarah Teather, director of Jesuit Refugee Service UK, said her organization had always opposed the “cruel and unworkable” policy.

“Forcibly removing people to Rwanda would achieve nothing except to violate their basic rights, trash the UK’s reputation on the international stage, and exacerbate fear and uncertainty among those seeking sanctuary here,” she said in a statement.

“JRS UK has directly supported more than twenty people, including survivors of torture, facing removal to Rwanda. The threat of removal is felt far more widely. Through our accompaniment of refugees, we understand the human impact of this policy and the profound dangers it presents to people in search of safety,” Teather continued.

Aisha Dodwell, the head of campaigns for the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, CAFOD, said the Supreme Court ruling “makes clear that we have a moral and legal duty to care for migrants and refugees.”

“The Rwanda plan was a cruel attempt to turn away people who are seeking protection. We urgently need to transform the way migrants are treated. In the absence of safe and legal routes, thousands of people die each year as they are forced to take dangerous journeys to reach safety,” she continued.

“As Pope Francis tells us, we must welcome people without prejudice and focus on building bridges and not walls,” Dodwell said.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the government will consider what steps to take next, noting the Supreme Court ruling says the principle of sending migrants to a third country is “lawful.”

“This was not the outcome we wanted, but we have spent the last few months planning for all eventualities and we remain completely committed to stopping the boats,” he said in a statement.

“Crucially, the Supreme Court – like the Court of Appeal and the High Court before it – has confirmed that the principle of sending illegal migrants to a safe third country for processing is lawful. This confirms the Government’s clear view from the outset,” Sunak said.

“Illegal migration destroys lives and costs British taxpayers millions of pounds a year. We need to end it, and we will do whatever it takes to do so. When people know that if they come here illegally, they won’t get to stay then they will stop coming altogether, and we will stop the boats,” the prime minister added.

Meanwhile, the Rwanda government issued a statement that said the issue is ultimately a decision for the UK’s judicial system.

“However, we do take issue with the ruling that Rwanda is not a safe third country for asylum seekers and refugees, in terms of refoulement. Rwanda and the UK have been working together to ensure the integration of relocated asylum seekers into Rwandan society,” the statement said.

“Rwanda is committed to its international obligations, and we have been recognized by the UNHCR and other international institutions for our exemplary treatment of refugees. Throughout this legal process we’ve been busy continuing to deliver progress for Rwandans, and working together with international partners to solve some of the biggest challenges that Africa and the wider the world faces. We take our humanitarian responsibilities seriously, and will continue to live up to them,” the statement continued.

The head of Jesuit Refugee Service UK noted that while the Rwanda policy has been ruled unlawful, the “profound trauma it caused remains, alongside a raft of other hostile policies devastating the lives of refugee friends we accompany.”

“We will continue to advocate for a fairer asylum system that recognizes our responsibility to offer sanctuary and builds upon the welcome extended by so many people and communities throughout the UK. We urge people to get involved and help us to advocate for a more compassionate system,” Teather said.