The British government has been taken to court over its policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Human rights groups launched a legal challenge on Monday at London's High Court, arguing that the policy is both illegal and immoral.
The government was forced to cancel the first deportation flight to Rwanda in June after a number of last-minute legal challenges.
The policy is designed to deter asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats.
Opponents of the policy argue that it breaches international law and will not prevent migrants from risking their lives in dangerous Channel crossings.
They also say the plans are based on the false assumption that Rwanda is a safe destination, even though government officials have raised concerns about the country's human rights record.
“Many of those seeking sanctuary in the United Kingdom have suffered unimaginable horrors; it is incomprehensible that our government is now trying to expel them to a country that has a well-documented record of repression,’’ said Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch.
“We are hoping that this case will shine a spotlight on the inaccuracies that the UK government has propagated about Rwanda in order to fulfil its migration objectives.’’
The case was brought by several asylum seekers who were set for deportation in June. Also involved are the immigrant rights groups Care4Calais and Detention Action, and the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents border staff who would have to enforce the policy.
The government in April announced an agreement with Rwanda under which people who enter Britain illegally would be deported to the East African nation, where they would be allowed to seek asylum.
In exchange for accepting them, Rwanda would receive millions of pounds in development aid.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended the plan, arguing that it is a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart the criminal gangs that smuggle migrants across the English Channel.
After the first deportation flight was cancelled, Home Secretary Priti Patel said the government planned to move ahead with its policy and the flights had merely been paused while individual claims were considered.
The government believes the policy is legal, Ms Patel told the House of Commons. She said that Rwanda's commitment to human rights had been “terribly misrepresented and traduced".
“Rwanda is a safe and secure country with an outstanding track record of supporting asylum seekers,” she said. “And, indeed, we are proud that we are working together.”
The court hearing is set to last for five days with a ruling to come at a later date.
Rwanda is a “one-party authoritarian state with extreme levels of surveillance,” where “freedom of speech is absent” and the refugees could face “police violence” and “legal repression,” Raza Husain, a lawyer representing some of the claimants, said at the hearing.
Lawyers for the claimants, who also include charities and a trade union representing civil servants, are challenging the legality of the government’s plans. They asked the court to quash the Home Office’s assessment that Rwanda is a “safe third country".
The lawyers mapped out alleged instances of abuses in the country, outlining risks to dissenters and instances of extra judicial killings, in documents prepared for the hearing.
They said government officials had found serious concerns in the country, but these were not communicated to decision-makers.
The government’s lawyers, led by David Pannick, said the decisions being challenged were “not unlawful” and claimed there was “no risk of harm to any of the individual claimants in Rwanda,” court documents showed.
“We will vigorously defend the Migration and Economic Development Partnership in the courts,” Ms Patel said.
Opposition politician Richard Burgon told protesters outside the court that campaigners should not “shy away” from fighting against the “scapegoating” of refugees.
“These refugees deserve our support and solidarity. We have a moral duty towards them," he said.
“We should recognise that humanity is our homeland. More than ever, a decent policy welcoming refugees and saying that refugees are welcome here is important, more important than ever.”