The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.K. cancels flight to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda after court challenges

Human rights activists demonstrate outside the Home Office in London on June 13. (Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

LONDON — A dramatic legal showdown concluded Tuesday night with the British government canceling its first planned flight to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Just hours before the flight was scrubbed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was defending the plan as a way to deter desperate immigrants from crossing the English Channel in unseaworthy rubber rafts — and to break the “business case” of smugglers who help them.

But the number of people on the inaugural flight had diminished as individual challenges made their way through the British court system in recent days. And although U.K. courts refused to ground the plane altogether, the government had little choice after a last-minute ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.

The human rights court granted an “urgent interim measure,” suggesting that people should not be removed before a U.K. judicial review of the policy scheduled to take place in July.

Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed the government’s frustration.

“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 said.

But she denied the significance of the setback, saying, “We will not be deterred from doing the right thing and delivering our plans to control our nation’s borders. Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparations for the next flight begins now.”

The desire for Britain to control its own borders was a key aspect of Brexit.

The government wants to put all or most adult immigrants who arrive illegally on British shores onto planes to fly 4,000 miles away to East Africa, where they could wait while their claims are being assessed — or leave if they prefer to return to their home countries.

More than 10,000 people have entered Britain via the Channel this year. On calm summer days, hundreds arrive on British beaches. In a single incident in November 2021, at least 27 migrants died while attempting the crossing.

Although the new policy has support from Johnson’s Conservative Party, it has been highly controversial within Britain, provoking criticism from the likes of the archbishop of Canterbury and, reportedly, Prince Charles.

The BBC said that, as of Friday, up to 130 people had been notified they could be removed. But after many individuals succeeded in having their deportation orders canceled by British courts over several days, a chartered plane able to accommodate 200 people was slated to take off Tuesday with just a handful of people on board, including three Iranians, one Syrian, one Albanian, one Iraqi and one man from Vietnam.

Supreme Court Judge Robert Reed ruled that the flight could go ahead — and that if a scheduled judicial review of the government policy found that the forced removals were illegal, people could be brought back.

But the European Court of Human Rights raised questions about how easily people could be pulled back, as well as whether Rwanda should be considered a safe country and whether asylum seekers transferred there would have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of their status.

Although Britain has exited the European Union, it remains a member of the human rights court.

Clare Moseley, founder of the pro-migrant group Care4Calais, applauded the court’s intervention, tweeting “Last ticket canceled. NO ONE IS GOING TO RWANDA.”

Moseley told The Washington Post she had been “shaken to my core” that British judges would allow the flights to begin.

She said some of those scheduled to fly were victims of torture and that their cases should be decided in Britain. She said the British government has agreed to take in people fleeing Hong Kong and Ukraine — and “so it’s not really about the numbers,” but how they arrive.

Britons are divided on the issue. A YouGov poll this week found that 44 percent support the policy, while 40 percent oppose it. The survey also found a striking difference reflecting political affiliation, with 74 percent of Conservatives supporting the policy and only 19 percent of Labour voters supporting it.

After the flight was canceled, London Mayor Sadiq Khan — a prominent Labour politician — tweeted that the “inhumane” deportations had been stopped. “Sending people fleeing violence to a country thousands of miles away was already cruel and callous. It’s now potentially unlawful too.”

In a letter that appeared on the front page of several newspapers, senior bishops — including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the effective leader of the Church of England — charged: “This immoral policy shames Britain.”

The Times and Daily Mail newspapers also reported that Prince Charles, heir to the throne, said in private that the policy was “appalling.” This raised eyebrows, as senior members of the royal family are expected to be politically neutral.

A spokeswoman for his office, Clarence House, said: “We would not comment on supposed anonymous private conversations with the Prince of Wales, except to restate that he remains politically neutral. Matters of policy are decisions for government.”

Johnson’s government has remained defensive. In televised remarks Tuesday at the opening of his cabinet meeting, the prime minister said activists and their lawyers who opposed the plan were “abetting criminal gangs.”

“They’re undermining everything that we are doing to provide safe and legal routes for people to come to the U.K. and to oppose the illegal and dangerous routes,” he said.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News, “The really important thing is we establish the principle and we start to break the business model of these appalling people traffickers who are trading in misery.”

She took issue with the criticism of forced removals as immoral. “The people who are immoral in this case are the people traffickers trading in human misery,” she said. “Our policy is completely legal. It’s completely moral.”

Following the cancellation of the flight, Yolande Makolo, the Rwandan government spokesperson, said her government remained “fully committed to making this partnership work.”

“The current situation of people making dangerous journeys cannot continue as it is causing untold suffering to so many,” she said. “Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country.”

Rwanda, a Commonwealth nation, will receive $160 million in aid as part of the deal.

Activists have sharply criticized the policy, citing violations regularly committed under Rwanda’s authoritarian president, Paul Kagame. In a Human Rights Watch report published Monday, a prominent commentator arrested after speaking about losing family members in Rwanda’s genocide accused authorities of beating him and other government critics.

“It’s abundantly clear that Rwanda is not a safe place for asylum seekers,” said Lewis Mudge, the Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Rwandan authorities commit human rights violations with impunity, whether it’s killing, disappearing, torturing, detaining unlawfully or threatening those who they deem to be opposing them.”

John Mudakikwa, the executive director for the Center for Rule of Law Rwanda, said that the expulsion policy seems legally questionable and should continue to be “carefully scrutinized.” But he noted that Rwanda has a history of welcoming refugees and said he was confident that once they arrived, “they will be safe.”

Rwanda’s high commissioner to the U.K., Johnston Busingye, promised that the migrants sent from Britain will “be free to come and go as they please and the Rwandan authorities will look after their needs.”

If they want to return to their homeland, or any other country that will accept them, they are free to go, Busingye said.

Rachel Chason in Washington and Rael Ombuor in Nairobi contributed to the report.