The British government’s highly contested plan to fly some asylum seekers to Rwanda suffered a significant setback on Thursday when one of the country’s top courts ruled against the move to deport would-be refugees before their claims are assessed.

In a judgment delivered in London, the Court of Appeal said that Rwanda was not a safe country for asylum seekers. In doing so, the judges reversed a ruling in December by the High Court, which dismissed most legal challenges to the plan.

The decision on Thursday was not unanimous, with one of the three judges taking the opposite view.

“The result is that the High Court’s decision that Rwanda was a safe third country is reversed and that unless and until the deficiencies in its asylum processes are corrected, removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda will be unlawful,” said Ian Burnett, the lord chief justice.

The decision is unlikely to be the final word in what has already been a protracted legal battle over the government’s offshoring plans, which have been fiercely criticized by activists and human rights groups. The government is expected to appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court to try to overturn the decision.

The government hopes its agreement with Rwanda, which was struck last year, will deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous crossing from France to the southern coast of England on small, often unseaworthy boats.

The political stakes are high, too, because, amid rising tension within the Conservative government over an increase in immigration, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain has promised to “stop the boats” — making his hard-line policy one of the five central objectives of his leadership.

Advocacy groups say that flying asylum seekers to Rwanda, whose human rights record has been criticized, would violate international law and would not necessarily deter those risking the perilous journey across the English Channel.

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