The British government vowed on Wednesday to organize more flights to deport asylum seekers from around the world to Rwanda after a last-minute court ruling grounded the first plane it would take off under the controversial policy.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said “preparations for the next flight are now starting,” despite legal rulings that none of the migrants destined for deportation should be sent to the East African country.
“We will not be deterred by the inevitable last-minute legal challenges,” Ms Patel told lawmakers.
Under an agreement signed in April, Britain plans to send a number of migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, among others, who arrive illegally in Britain as stowaways or in small boats to Rwanda, where their asylum applications will be processed . If successful, they will stay in the African country, rather than return to Britain.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government says the plan is a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart the criminal gangs that send migrants from France on risky journeys across the English Channel.
Human rights groups argue that the plan violates the protection of refugees under rules drawn up after World War II. They have called the idea inhumane and a waste of money. Britain paid Rwanda £120 million ($150 million) upfront for the deal.
Critics include leaders of the Church of England and, according to British news reports, heir to the throne Prince Charles.
British courts last week refused to ground the first flight, which was scheduled for Tuesday, but the number expected to be on board was reduced by appeals and legal challenges, from 37 last week to seven on Tuesday.
Then the European Court of Human Rights, an international tribunal backed by 46 countries, including Britain, ruled late Tuesday that an Iraqi man allegedly on the plane was not allowed to fly, saying he had “a real risk of irreversible damage”. That verdict allowed the last few migrants on the plane to get a reprieve from British judges with minutes left, and the government canceled the then-empty flight.
British Cabinet Secretary Therese Coffey said the government was “surprised and disappointed” by the ruling.
“I think the public will be surprised to see European judges dismiss British judges,” she told Sky News – although the European judges did not dismiss the British courts, which had ruled on the issue of the flight as a whole, on individual migrants.
Some lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party nevertheless say Britain should withdraw from the Strasbourg-based European human rights court, which Britain helped set up.
A full trial of the legality of the Rwanda plan will be heard in British courts by the end of July.
Human rights lawyer Frances Swaine, who represents one of the people to be sent to Rwanda, urged the government to await that decision before organizing any more deportation flights.
“I would sit back and think: Was it worth it, financially or legally, to run one of these very expensive flights again, when this time they have been so unsuccessful on legal grounds?” she said.
The British government says it will welcome refugees who come through approved immigration routes, but wants to bankrupt the criminal smuggling gangs who carry out dangerous journeys across the Channel.
Migration and refugee groups point out that there are no approved legal routes to Britain for most refugees, with the exception of those fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine. Great Britain receives fewer asylum applications than comparable European countries such as France and Germany.
There are also concerns about the treatment of migrants in Rwanda, Africa’s most populous country. While Rwanda was the scene of a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1994, the country has since built a reputation for stability and economic progress, the British government says.
Critics say stability comes at the cost of political repression.
Last year, more than 28,000 migrants entered Britain by crossing the English Channel, up from 8,500 in 2020. About 10,000 have arrived so far this year. Dozens have died attempting the journey, including 27 people in November when a boat capsized.
Mr Johnson, who is fighting for his political life amid concerns over his leadership and ethics, has pledged to stop the criminal gangs behind the dangerous journeys – a message of ‘severely against immigration’ that is playing well with conservative grassroots.
Labor Party Migration spokeswoman Yvette Cooper said the plan is “unworkable, unethical and will not stop the criminal gangs”.
“This is not a long-term plan; it’s a short-term stunt,” she said.
Migration groups say Rwanda’s plan is unlikely to deter desperate people from making risky trips to Britain. In southern England, more than 440 people were brought ashore from small boats on Tuesday, including a heavily pregnant woman and parents with children.
Nando Sigona, a migration expert at the University of Birmingham, said that because most of the people elected for deportation under the Rwanda plan are single men, the policy could lead to more women, children and families trying to cross the Channel.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Danica Kirka contributed to this story.