The high court decision was described as “unprecedented and precedent-setting” by a legal source.
The group of failed Tamil asylum seekers was due to be sent back to Sri Lanka on Thursday, on a flight leaving the UK at around 4pm, but now they will be able to remain in the UK while their situations are considered further.
The landmark decision has wider implications because it also applies to all other failed Tamil asylum seekers, and those in detention, meaning none can be removed at present. New claimants will still have to make claims in the normal way.
The failed Tamil asylum seekers, represented by Renaissance Chambers, were due to be deported on Thursday despite the government’s admission earlier this month that at least 15 Tamils previously sent back to Sri Lanka were tortured.
Sri Lanka has an alarmingly persistent record of serious human rights abuse, particularly for those who oppose the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Most of the victims are ethnic Tamils.
In 2009, a 27-year-long Tamil insurgency was crushed by the Sri Lankan government, at the loss of tens of thousands of civilian lives. Although the war is over, human rights groups say many Tamils continue to live in fear.
A UK Border Agency spokesman told Channel 4 News: “We are disappointed with the outcome of this hearing and we will appeal. The ruling does not represent a blanket ban on returns to Sri Lanka.”
The judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, described the situation as “virtually unique”, due to the timing of the case.
At the same time as this particular case was under consideration, an immigration tribunal has been hearing evidence on the wider question of the situation in Sri Lanka. Its deliberations will be used to update Home Office guidance on the risks of returning people to the country.
Mr Justice Wilkie said that because the guidance on Sri Lanka was being considered “virtually afresh” and it was clear that “the existing country guidance will have to change”, the failed Tamil asylum seekers could not be deported as planned.
“That position is one which this court cannot simply blind itself to,” he said.
Keith Best, chief executive of Freedom from Torture, told Channel 4 News: “In the face of such overwhelming evidence, it is a sad indictment of our political masters that it has taken a court to impose the precautions that we have repeatedly called for.
“The UKBA’s removals policy for Sri Lankan Tamils remains deeply flawed. Until this is remedied many in need of the UK’s protection still live with the risk of forced return to torture.” (CH4)