by Antonio Storto

The atmosphere is that of a showdown. On one side is the British executive, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, intent on consolidating the conservative vote at all costs under the banner of zero tolerance for illegal immigration. On the other are the human rights organisations, which have waged a fierce battle with the Government in the Courts, with appeals and adjournments.

At issue is the Illegal Immigration Bill, a legislative crackdown on clandestine immigration on which the UK’s Supreme Court will soon have to rule. Among a series of draconian measures, the Act, which came into force in March 2023, sanctions the deportation to Rwanda of those who cross the Channel illegally, leaving them de facto stranded in the African Country. This last measure is at the centre of a political and legal tug-of-war that has been going on for almost two years, given that the first reallocation agreements with Kigali were made by the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, behind the promise of £120 million in funding.

Downing Street received its final ‘no-go’ – after a painful parliamentary approval process – from the High Court in London in June. Two out of three judges ruled the deportations were illegal. “The shortcomings of the Rwandan asylum system,” said Lord Burtnett, President of the Court, “are such that there is a real risk that migrants will be returned to their Countries of origin, where they will face persecution or other inhuman treatment, even if they are entitled to asylum. In this sense, Rwanda cannot be considered a safe third Country.”

Hence the latest appeal by Sunak, who is determined to bring the law home at all costs. So much so, that should the Supreme Court – which has been hearing the case since 9 October – issue a final and definitive refusal, there is already talk in Downing Street of taking the matter to the extreme. “There are several reports circulating predicting a new Government defeat,” said Akiko Hart, interim President of Liberty, one of the UK’s leading humanitarian organisations, at the end of October. “But if that happens, the Conservatives are already planning their next move.”

The reference is to the withdrawal from the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), which the more extreme fringes of the Tories have been threatening for over a year. It is precisely by appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (the body responsible for monitoring compliance with the Convention) that associations such as Liberty or Asylum Aid have managed to block every flight of migrants that the Government has tried to send to Rwanda since June 2022.

In May, a poll commissioned by The Sun – the historical reference point for the more openly populist British right – showed that 53% of British citizens were against leaving the ECHR, while 37% were in favour: a result that is far from surprising, given that for almost seventy years the document has been the signatory Countries’ most important guarantee for the protection of fundamental rights such as the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy or the right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches, torture and inhuman treatment.

Nevertheless, “the Convention now seems to have become a stumbling block for a section of the Tories and the British Government,” explains Riccardo Noury, Italian spokesman for Amnesty International, another of the humanitarian organisations that have been most vocal in opposing the British Government’s immigration policy. “But in this sense,” he continues, “it is interesting to look at the rulings that the European Court of Human Rights has made in recent years against the United Kingdom for violating several articles of the ECHR: in 2022, on the rights of domestic workers; in 2021, on the issue of mass surveillance, on a complaint filed by NGOs and journalists; and again in 2021, on the protection of girls and children who have survived trafficking. And before that, in 2019, on domestic violence and the case of an elderly man who was wrongly included by the police in a database of political extremists.”

“The impression,” concludes Noury, “is that the Immigration Bill is just the tip of the iceberg in the tensions between the British Government and the bodies set up to uphold the ECHR. Which, let us not forget, is a fundamental instrument for defending the most vulnerable and holding Governments to account. And that is why today some political forces are beginning to see it as an obstacle, preventing them from doing what they want without being subject to judicial scrutiny.”

The Amnesty spokesperson goes on to highlight the fundamental role played by the Convention in the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively ended the Northern Ireland conflict through a complex set of provisions that still govern relations between the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland today. A process in which, as Noury points out, “the ECHR has been a de facto compass,” to the extent that by abandoning the Convention, London would be abandoning the Agreement as well – as most British analysts have been stressing for the past year.

Then there is the legislative jungle that would ensue, due to the particular legal system imposed by the common law, which is based on precedents rather than the codification of normative acts. In this sense, it is not inaccurate to speak of a “new Brexit,” as London would be forced to seriously question national legislation to decide which judgments of the European Court of Human Rights should be incorporated into law and which should not (apart from those already incorporated into the Human Rights Act 1998).

And it is no coincidence that former Prime Minister John Mayor, who was the main architect of the Belfast Agreement, now leads the dissident faction within the Conservative Party; in early February, speaking to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, Mayor recalled that the UK not only helped to draft the Agreement but was the first to ratify it. “People think it’s an EU body and that’s why they don’t like it,” the former Prime Minister told the committee. “But it isn’t. Churchill and members of his Government were the founding fathers of it. It was a British invention.”

On the cover photo, UK Border Force HMC Eagle coastal patrol vessel entering Plymouth via The English Channel Immigration Control Vessel © Billy Watkins/