First Rwanda asylum seeker flight cancelled in last-minute reprieve

Legal challenges force UK government to cancel its first flight to the East African country

Rwanda deportation flight EC-LZO Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down Air Base, UK, on Tuesday. Getty Images
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The first UK deportation flight to Rwanda was cancelled due to last-minute interventions by the European Court of Human Rights.

All migrants were removed from the plane and the flight to Rwanda did not take off as scheduled on Tuesday evening.

The European ruling said there was a risk of ill-treatment in Rwanda, an absence of a legally enforced mechanism to return to the UK and that the African state was outside the European Convention on Human Rights.

On Tuesday morning, a 200-seat 767 Boeing aircraft operated by Spanish airline Privilege Style arrived in the UK, ready to transport the asylum seekers at a cost to the British taxpayer of up to £500,000 ($598,000).

Ministers had originally planned for up to 130 people to be on board the plane, but by Tuesday it had shrunk to seven with a series of appeals failing in UK courts with just hours remaining.

Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed her disappointment that the flight had been unable to leave.

“Earlier this year, I signed a world-leading migration partnership with Rwanda to see those arriving dangerously, illegally or unnecessarily into the UK relocated to build their lives there," Ms Patel said.

"This will help break the people smugglers’ business model and prevent loss of life, while ensuring protection for the genuinely vulnerable.

"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.“

“I have always said this policy will not be easy to deliver and am disappointed that legal challenges and last-minute claims have meant today’s flight was unable to depart.

“It is very surprising that the European Court of Human Rights has intervened despite repeated earlier success in our domestic courts.

"These repeated legal barriers are similar to those we experience with other removals flights and many of those removed from this flight will be placed on the next.

“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 preparation for the next flight begins now.”

Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said: “We are not deterred by these developments.

“Rwanda remains 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.

“Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country.”

UK refugee charities were quick to share their relief that the flight to Kigali had been grounded.

Refugee Action said on Twitter: “This is what people power looks like. You are all incredible! Together we can and we will fight the #AntiRefugeeLaws.”

The Refugee Council tweeted: “Massive relief that tonight's planned flight to Rwanda will not be taking off.”

Detention Action were also pleased with the news and said: “Fantastic news. With only minutes til the flight to #Rwanda was due to take off, a series of legal decisions — from the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights — have seen all people seeking asylum taken off the flight.”

“We’re pleased the courts have ruled to stop this flight,” said Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union.

“It’s time for the government to stop this inhumane policy which is the basest of gesture politics and start to engage seriously with sorting out the asylum system so those who come to our country seeking refuge are treated fairly and according to the law.”

Last-minute legal challenges

Earlier, at least five of the seven people scheduled to be sent to Rwanda under the new programme lost their legal bids to remain in Britain, but late in the day, the European court issued an order to prevent the deportation of one person.

The court decided that the applicant should not be removed to Rwanda until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his judicial review proceedings.

Rwanda prepares for refugees — video

Rwanda prepares for refugees

Rwanda prepares for refugees

The seven men, who come from Iran, Iraq and Vietnam, had their 11th-hour attempts to be removed from the first deportation flight to Kigali refused at London court hearings.

An Iraqi-Kurdish man lost his last-minute bid at the High Court to prevent being moved to Rwanda. The Supreme Court rejected an appeal bid by another Iraqi man.

The High Court decision was the fourth refusal of similar applications made to Mr Justice Jonathan Swift on the day the plane was set to take off after legal challenges made to block it.

The first man to lose his legal bid on Tuesday was an Iranian Kurd who the court heard suffered traumatic stress in Turkey while travelling to the UK.

He asked to not be removed to the East African nation because of his mental health and on the grounds that he has relatives in the UK.

The asylum seeker, whose sister is a UK resident, claimed his deportation would infringe on his right to a family life.

But the judge decided his removal would not alter the quality or nature of that relationship as they “maintained regular contact” by phone.

“I note that the claimant will be able to maintain the relationship with his sister in the same way that relationship has been conducted since 2010,” Mr Swift said in his judgment.

He said the man would have access to health care in Rwanda.

UK announces plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda — video

UK announces plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

UK announces plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda

A second man from Iran, who had travelled to the UK with his son, 21, also failed in his attempt to prevent his deportation.

He had asked the High Court to prevent his removal because of his mental health and right to a family life.

While refusing the claimant's application, Mr Swift said that he accepted “the prejudice … will include distress due to being separated from his son”.

Afghan migrant documents journey across the Channel — video

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

Afghan migrant documents dangerous journey across Channel

A Vietnamese asylum seeker had also failed to persuade the High Court judge to halt his removal.

A barrister representing the man told Mr Swift that he had claimed asylum after receiving “death threats from loan sharks” in Vietnam.

The lawyer complained of a “procedural failure” and said the man had not been given a “reasonable opportunity” to make representations.

Flight injunction denied

On Friday, Mr Swift refused to grant a general injunction that would have prevented the flight, and possibly any others, pending the outcome of a full judicial review of the policy, which is to be heard at the High Court in July.

The Public and Commercial Services union, which represents more than 80 per cent of Border Force staff, and charities Care4Calais and Detention Action challenged his refusal to grant the injunction at the Court of Appeal on Monday.

That appeal was dismissed by three senior judges, who said there was “no error” in the decision.

Government plan receives widespread criticism

The British government’s controversial £120 million plan has been called catastrophic by the UN refugee chief, the leadership of the Church of England denounced it as immoral and shameful, and media have reported Prince Charles privately described the plan as “appalling.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the government will not be dissuaded by criticism of the plan.

“We are not going to be in any way deterred or abashed by some of the criticism that is being directed upon this policy, some of it from slightly unexpected quarters,” Mr Johnson told Cabinet ministers on Tuesday.

“We are going to get on and deliver.

“I always said that it will begin with a lot of teething problems and you will have a lot of legal action against it and they will try to delay it. That’s inevitable.

“But what we’re trying to do is stop the business model of criminal gangs who are preying on people moving them across the Channel in unseaworthy vessels, risking their lives and sometimes costing their lives.”

Protesters condemn UK government as court allows first deportation flight to Rwanda — video

Protesters condemn UK government as court allows first deportation flight to Rwanda

Protesters condemn UK government as court allows first deportation flight to Rwanda

On Tuesday morning, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the first plane would take off that night even if it was carrying only one person, and that subsequent flights were scheduled.

“There will be people on this flight and if they're not on this flight, they will be on the next flight because we are determined to break the model of the appalling people traffickers,” Ms Truss told Sky News.

Will Rwanda plan really deter people from crossing Channel?

There is also criticism that it will fail in Mr Johnson's stated objective of deterring dangerous Channel crossings.

Government figures show more than 28,500 people were detected arriving in Britain on small boats last year. Dozens more, including women and young children, arrived on Tuesday.

Human rights groups say the policy will put migrants at risk.

The UN High Commission for Refugees has said Rwanda, the human rights record of which is under scrutiny, does not have the capacity to process the claims, and there is a risk some migrants could be returned to countries from which they had fled.

Updated: June 15, 2022, 6:07 AM