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Stop the Boats: Prime Minister Sunak and the UK’s Assertion of National Sovereignty

By: Stefanie Allman

The British Parliament is in the process of voting on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, that would send asylum seekers who arrive in Britain to Rwanda, a country in East Africa.[1] This change would indicate a further distancing of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) and international law. That said, when viewed in the context of the UK’s support for Ukraine, one can instead see an evolving view of individual national sovereignty.

Since Brexit in 2020, immigration issues have been top of mind in the UK and among British Prime Ministers.[2] Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made it one of his main goals to secure Britain’s borders since coming to office and to “stop the boats.”[3] Sunak claims that he is deeply committed to this issue due to the huge expense these migrants are causing the UK government to incur. In fact, Britain spends more than three billion pounds annually on processing asylum applications and about eight million pounds per day in housing costs for migrants.[4] 

The main legal issue that is implicated by this immigration bill is that the European Court of Human Rights could issue injunctions to block deportation flights in order to comply with international law. Additionally, asylum seekers facing deportation could still appeal to the UK courts.[5] There is concern that this proposed plan is a way to circumvent Britain’s responsibility to hear claims for asylum. Per the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), “[a] State’s refugee protection obligations are engaged, inter alia, when an asylum-seeker enters their territory, including territorial waters, or is intercepted at sea by their authorities. The primary responsibility to provide protection rests with the State where asylum is sought.”[6] There is concern that although Rwanda has generously provided a safe haven for asylum seekers in the past, this influx of asylum seekers would push Rwanda’s capacity to provide adequate protection for these individuals.[7] Courts and judges alike have feared that sending refugees to Rwanda may result in those refugees facing persecution in Rwanda, or even being sent back to the countries they were trying to flee in the first place.[8] 

Critics of the proposed plan claim that it would violate international human rights laws and that the bill is incompatible with international refugee law.[9] The UK is signatory to the 1998 European Convention on Human Rights.[10] Under the Human Rights Act of 1998, asylum seekers are allowed to remain in the UK while their cases are adjudicated.[11] Regardless, Prime Minister Sunak has clearly stated that he will brazenly ignore international law.[12] Sunak has urged his government that “foreign courts” will not overrule British sovereignty.[13] The Prime Minister’s view reflects increasing anti-international sentiments.

In the era of Brexit and with the rise of “strong-men” populist rulers like Prime Minister Modi, President Xi Jinping, and President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Sunak’s actions illustrate the stresses and fractions on international order and international law. At a time when the UK’s population is growing at below replacement, Sunak’s claim that these asylum seekers must be deported and these boats must be stopped because of economic concerns may be disingenuous.[14]  Instead, like other leaders that are returning to earlier views of national sovereignty, preservation of borders, and restrictive immigration policies, Sunak is taking a political stance that throws the legitimacy of the UK’s higher courts into question and trades the rule of law for a “step towards a very undesirable form of government,” as described by Lord Carlisle, a member of the House of Lords.[15]

Despite Sunak’s push to ignore and otherwise invalidate international courts and international law, Sunak’s support of Ukraine illustrates hope for a continued international engagement and gives insight into Sunak’s view of national sovereignty. The UK has been one of the leading European nations supporting Ukraine in its defensive war with Russia.[16] In a speech in Kyiv this January, Prime Minister Sunak expressed his strong support for Ukrainian sovereignty, praising the Ukrainian parliament, “[b]ecause this is where you express the sovereignty and independence … for which your people are prepared to sacrifice everything.”[17] 

Prime Minister Sunak’s willingness to spend billions of pounds on Ukrainian defense, while pushing to send asylum seekers abroad and pay Rwanda for hosting them despite similar costs (2.5 billion pounds on Ukrainian military aid annually and 3 billion pounds on asylum seekers annually), indicates his policies are not merely economic in nature.[18] Fundamentally, Sunak is expressing a particular view of national sovereignty with closed borders, self-determination, and a profoundly national character. Instead of viewing his actions as an utter disregard for international law and a breakdown of order, it might be helpful to see Prime Minister Sunak’s actions as a blueprint for future engagement with other nations that have embraced nationalistic policies. Although the world is increasingly interdependent, many countries will chafe at the thought of being unable to control their borders and, especially with a protracted war in Europe, disregard policies and laws imposed by foreign governments when they interfere with perceived domestic issues. That does not mean that isolationism will rise, but instead international law must meet the moment and respect national sovereignty in order to allow for the laws to be respected.

Stefanie Allman is a Staff Editor at CICLR.

[1] Michael Holden, What is the Rwanda bill? UK’s Migrant Plan Explained, Reuters (Jan. 17, 2024), [].

[2] Brexit was the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This officially went into effect on January 31, 2020, and makes the UK the only sovereign country to have left the EU.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. 

[5] Id.

[6] UNHCR, UNHCR Analysis of the Legality and Appropriateness of the Transfer of Asylum- Seekers under the UK-Rwanda arrangement (June 2022), [].

[7] Id. 

[8] Luke McGee, British Lawmakers Pass Sunak’s Controversial Rwanda Asylum Plan, CNN (Jan. 17, 2024),UK%20is%20signed%20up%20to [].

[9] Id.

[10] Human Rights Act 1998, c. 42 (Eng.) (giving further effect to the European Convention on Human Rights).

[11] Id. 

[12] Jennifer Scott, Rwanda Bill: Rishi Sunak 'Crystal Clear' He Will Ignore International Law to Ensure Asylum Seekers Are Deported, Sky News (Jan. 18, 2024)  [].

[13] Id. 

[14] Pensions at a Glance 2019: OECD and G20 Indicators, OECD (2019), [].

[15] Scott, supra note 12. Barrister and cross-bench peer Lord Carlisle described the government's course of action as a “step towards totalitarianism, saying: ‘When a government decides to push aside its senior courts - and here we're talking about something that arose in the UK Supreme Court - that is certainly a first step towards a very undesirable form of government.’” Id.

[16] Sergiy Karazy, Britain’s Sunak, in Ukraine, Announces Increase in Military Aid, Reuters (Jan. 12, 2024, 4:12 PM), [].

[17]  Prime Minister’s Off., Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Address to the Ukrainian Parliament: 12 January 2024 (2024), [].

[18] Karazy, supra note 15.


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