The UK Government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda was stalled this week after a last minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
The first flight planned as part of the Home Office’ controversial policy was cancelled on Tuesday evening, sparking a new debate about the ECHR’s authority in the UK.
A number of commentators and pundits falsely suggested that the plan was stopped by a EU court.
Ferret Fact Service explains what the ECHR is and how the Rwanda flights were stopped.
What is the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)?
It was established in 1959 as a result of the previously agreed European Convention on Human Rights. The court oversees the implementation of the Convention in the member states.
The ECHR provides an opportunity for people, groups or states to challenge decisions by a member of the Council of Europe that they feel has breached human rights enshrined in the Convention.
How did the ECHR intervene in the Rwanda deportations?
The UK Government announced its policy to send asylum seekers who are deemed to have entered the UK “illegally” to Rwanda in April 2022. It said claims would be processed in Rwanda through its immigration system and those who are successful would then be able to settle there, while those who failed would be deported back to their country of origin.
The legality of the plan was called into question as soon as it was announced, with the UN’s refugee agency reportedly twice warning the UK Government that the plan was unlawful.
The first flight was due to depart on Tuesday but was blocked by an 11th-hour intervention by the ECHR, which put in place an “urgent interim measure” in the case of one Iraqi asylum seeker who was due to depart on the flight. The Court ruled his deportation should be delayed until “three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings”.
This decision provided the legal basis for the remaining six asylum seekers due to be aboard the flight to have their deportation orders cancelled.
What is the ECHR jurisdiction?
The court exists to decide on complaints that member states of the Council of Europe are not abiding by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The UK is a member of the Council so has to abide by the rules set in the Convention.
It usually hears disputes where an individual or group feels they have not received justice within a member country, or has been unable to access the justice system. So the court often ends up deciding on matters of human rights which relate to particular government’s decisions or policy.
Is the ECHR part of the EU? How is this affected by Brexit?
The ECHR is separate from the European Union. The Council of Europe is often mistakenly claimed to be part of the EU, partly because they both use the flag of Europe. But it is a separate organisation which predates the EU and is meant to uphold human rights and democracy. It is not an economic union.
Despite leaving the EU, the UK remains a member of the Council of Europe. All EU member states are also members of the Council.
The ECHR should not be confused with the Court of Justice of the European Union, which is for interpreting and upholding EU law.
Does the UK want to leave the ECHR?
Boris Johnson hinted that the UK may consider withdrawing from the Convention on Human Rights after the court blocked an asylum seeker meant to be on the flight to Rwanda from being deported.
This was later confirmed by the UK Government as a potential option.
The UK Government previously announced plans for a ‘British bill of Rights’ to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enshrined the Convention into UK law. Some rights organisations and the Scottish Government have warned this move could “water down” the human rights enshrined in the current legislation.
Can the UK Government still send asylum seekers to Rwanda?
Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, told Sky News the government was planning to “challenge” the “initial ruling” of the court.
Home secretary Priti Patel said the government “would not be deterred” from continuing with the flights.
However the temporary intervention in place from the ECHR means any new flight will be subject to similar legal challenge.
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Photo thanks to iStock/frankpeters.