By JILL LAWLESS
LONDON (AP) — The British government vowed Wednesday to organize more flights to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, after a last-minute court judgment grounded the first plane due to take off under the contentious policy.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said ”preparation for the next flight begins now” despite legal rulings that none of the migrants earmarked for deportation could be sent to the East African country.
Under a deal signed in April between Britain and Rwanda, the U.K. government plans to send some migrants who arrive in the U.K. as stowaways or in small boats to Rwanda, where their asylum claims will be processed. If successful, they will stay in the African country, rather than returning 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 on risky journeys across the English Channel.
Human rights groups argue that the plan rides roughshod over the protections afforded to refugees under rules set up after World War II. They have called the idea unworkable, inhumane and a waste of money — Britain paid Rwanda 120 million pounds ($150 million) up front for the deal.
Critics include leaders of the Church of England and — according to British news reports — heir to the throne Prince Charles, who is due to visit Rwanda next week as representative of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.
U.K. courts refused last week to ground the first flight, scheduled for Tuesday, but the number due to be aboard was whittled down by appeals and legal challenges. The European Court of Human Rights— an international tribunal supported by 46 countries including the U.K. — ruled late Tuesday that an Iraqi man due to be on the plane shouldn’t fly, saying he faced “a real risk of irreversible harm.” That allowed the final few migrants on the plane to win reprieve.
U.K. Cabinet minister Therese Coffey said the government was “surprised and disappointed” by the ruling.
“I think the public will be surprised at European judges overruling British judges,” she told Sky News.
Some lawmakers from the governing Conservative Party say Britain should withdraw from the Strasbourg-based European human rights court, which the U.K. helped to set up.
The European court’s judgment on Tuesday didn’t overrule British decisions, which declined to ground the flight as a whole. The ECHR dealt with the cases of an individual due to be aboard.
A full trial of the legality of the U.K. government plan is due to be heard in the British courts by the end of July.
Human rights lawyer Frances Swaine, who represents one of the people due to be sent to Rwanda, urged the government to wait for that decision before organizing any more deportation flights.
“I would be sitting back and thinking was it worth it, either from a financial or a legal perspective, to organize one of these very expensive flights again when they’ve been so unsuccessful this time around on legal grounds,” she said.
The British government says it welcomes refugees who come by approved immigration routes, but wants to put the criminal smuggling gangs who operate dangerous Channel crossings out of business.
Migration and refugee groups point out that there are no approved legal routes for most people, with the exception of those fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine. The U.K. receives fewer asylum applications than comparably sized European countries such as France and Germany.
There are also concerns about the migrants’ treatment in Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa. While Rwanda was the site of a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1994, the country has built a reputation for stability and economic progress since then, the British government argues.
Critics say that stability comes at the cost of political repression.
More than 28,000 migrants entered the U.K. across the Channel last year, up from 8,500 in 2020, and about 10,000 have arrived so far this year. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.
Johnson, fighting for his political life amid concerns about his leadership and ethics, has promised to stop the criminal gangs behind the perilous journeys — a “tough on immigration” message that plays well with the Conservative grassroots.
Migration groups say the Rwanda plan is unlikely to deter desperate people making risky journeys to Britain. More than 440 people were brought ashore by in southern England from small boats on Tuesday, including a heavily pregnant woman and parents with children.
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