The inaugural flight of a controversial UK government scheme to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda was stopped on Tuesday at the eleventh hour, after an intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
According to the UK’s PA Media news agency, “all migrants have been removed from the plane and the flight to Rwanda will not take off as scheduled tonight.”
Britain’s government had announced the deal with the east African country in April. Those people granted asylum would then be allowed to resettle in Rwanda. The government insisted the program was aimed at disrupting people-smuggling networks and deterring migrants from making the dangerous sea journey across the Channel to England from France.
Advocacy groups had initiated multiple legal challenges to stop the aircraft, including an appeal that was rejected by the Court of Appeal in London on Monday. Several dozen asylum seekers saw their tickets canceled, Care4Calais refugee charity said, leaving just seven people due to be deported by Tuesday morning.
But on the evening that the plane was expected to depart, the ECHR issued a series of rulings in the cases of the last Rwanda-bound asylum-seekers, ordering the British government not to remove them.
A Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said the country is “not deterred” after the UK deportation flight to Rwanda was grounded.
“We are not deterred by these developments. Rwanda remains fully committed to making this partnership work,” Makolo said in a statement sent to CNN Wednesday.
“The current situation of people making dangerous journeys cannot continue as it is causing untold suffering to so many. Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country,” Makolo added.
In its ruling for one Iraqi national, the ECHR said: “The European Court has indicated to the UK Government that the applicant should not be removed to Rwanda until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings.”
The ECHR essentially found that that asylum seeker had not exhausted all legal proceedings in the UK, with British courts planning to hear the applicant’s judicial review challenge in July, and should not be removed until having done so.
“BREAKING: Last ticket cancelled,” tweeted Care4Calais, upon news of the flight cancellation. “NO ONE IS GOING TO RWANDA.”
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan also reacted, tweeting: “Tonight’s inhumane deportation of asylum seekers to #Rwanda has been stopped by the ECtHR - minutes before it was due to depart. Sending people fleeing violence to a country thousands of miles away was already cruel and callous. It’s now potentially unlawful too.”
The development is a rebuff to the UK government, after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the deportation flight would depart regardless of how many people were on board.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said Tuesday evening that she was “disappointed” that the flight had been halted, and that her office was reviewing the legality of the decision. The government plans to move forward with the project, she also said.
“Access to the UK’s asylum system must be based on need, not on the ability to pay people smugglers. The demands on the current system, the cost to the taxpayer, and the flagrant abuses are increasing, and the British public have rightly had enough,” Patel said.
“I have always said this policy will not be easy to deliver and am disappointed that legal challenge and last-minute claims have meant today’s flight was unable to depart,” she added.
Despite the government’s attempts to justify the scheme, criticism of the plan has continued to grow. Church of England leaders on Tuesday called it an “immoral policy that shames Britain” in a joint letter to The Times newspaper.
“Rwanda is a brave country recovering from catastrophic genocide. The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries,” the letter reads.
“Many are desperate people fleeing unspeakable horrors. Many are Iranians, Eritreans and Sudanese citizens, who have an asylum grant rate of at least 88 per cent,” it continued. “We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law – which protects the right to claim asylum.”
In response, Truss told Sky News that the Rwanda flights policy was “completely moral” and that critics “need to suggest an alternative policy that will work.”
‘Incredibly dangerous’ journey
According to data from the UK Home office, 28,526 people arrived to the United Kingdom on small boats in 2021. The vast majority of them, 23,655, were men and nearly two thirds came from just four countries: Iran (7,874), Iraq (5,414), Eritrea (2,829) and Syria (2,260).
Care4Calais said the reason the majority of refugees are male is the result of fleeing their homelands where “young men may be killed to stop them rebelling against the government, or forced into military service.”
It also explained the journey to Calais is “incredibly dangerous” and that “many families will not risk their daughters safety on a journey to Europe. The hope is the men who escape will then help them to safety.”
Almost all of the people who come on small boats – 98% off those who arrived in 2020 – have applied for asylum.
The Refugee Council said that most people arriving by small boats across the Channel are likely to be genuine refugees fleeing persecution.
Statistics from the Home Office show that people arriving to the UK from Iran (88%), Eritrea (97%) and Syria (98%) have generally high chances of being granted asylum.
The chances are significantly smaller for Iraqi citizens – only 48% of the decisions made in 2021 were positive.
The Refugee Council said that overall, around 75% of initial asylum decisions made in the year to March 2022 were positive and that of those who were rejected, about half were allowed asylum appeal.
More recently, the number of people coming on small boats has been increasing. The Home Office said 4,540 people arrived in the first three months of the year, more than three times higher than the same three months in 2021.
The number of people arriving was boosted by much higher numbers of people coming from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last summer.
The Home Office said 1,094 Afghan citizens came to the UK in the first quarter of 2022, almost as many as arrived over the entire 2021.
An average £183,000 per flight
The UK has said it will pay Rwanda £120 million ($145 million) over the next five years to finance the program. On top of that, the UK has also promised to pay for the processing and integration costs for each relocated person, covering the cost of legal advice, caseworkers, translators, accommodation, food and healthcare.
According to a parliamentary research briefing, the British government said it expects these will be similar to asylum processing costs in the UK, which stand at around £12,000 per person.
The UK has refused to disclose the cost of the flights it will charter to transport deportees to Rwanda. The Home Office said in its latest annual report it paid £8.6 million to charter 47 deportation flights carrying 883 people in 2020. While the cost of individual flights varied depending on the destination, the figures mean that on average, the Home Office spent £183,000 per flight or £9,700 per person.
Because there is no cap on the number of migrants, thousands could potentially pour into the capital Kigali within the first five years of the plan.
‘We’re doing this for the right reasons’
Ahead of the aircraft’s previously-scheduled departure, the Rwandan government said it was standing ready to receive asylum-seekers from the UK and that it will do its best “to make sure the migrants are taken care of.”
“We are asking that this program be given a chance,” said Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo at a press conference in the Kigali on Tuesday.
Makolo responded to the Church of England leaders’ condemnation saying, “we don’t think it’s immoral to offer a home to people – something we have done here for more than 30 years.”
“Where we’re coming from, we’re doing this for the right reasons. We want this to be a welcoming place and we’ll do our best to make sure the migrants are taken care of and that they’re able to build a life here,” she added.
Although Rwanda is offering to help with migrants’ resettlement to a third country by providing travel transportation if they manage to obtain legal residence, “the primary objective [of the scheme] is to fully integrate them into Rwandan society,” said Doris Uwicyeza Picard, the chief advisor to the Minister of Justice.
“There are legal paths to citizenship for migrant workers and for refugees provided they are eligible for citizenship,” she added.
The scheme will last five years, but Rwanda intends to turn it into a binding treaty at a later stage, said Picard.
CNN’s Bethlehem Feleke, Nada Bashir, and Chris Liakos contributed to this report.