Rwanda flight: UK Government plan to send near-empty flight is clear message to asylum seekers

Foreign secretary Priti Patel's dogged determination to send a near-empty flight of deportees to Rwanda was aimed at sending a clear message to asylum seekers across the world: Britain is closed.

Yet she was defeated.

A dwindling total of seven people were set to board the plane to Kigali on Tuesday night following a protracted series of legal battles which saw the figure whittled down from 37 original passengers in the past few days. At the eleventh hour, the flight was cancelled after the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) stepped in – and all seven men allowed to disembark.

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Human rights barrister Alasdair Mackenzie, who was representing the last man to leave the plane, summed up the mood of human rights campaigners and refugee advocates.

A protester communicates with those inside at the perimeter fence of Brook House immigration removal centre beside Gatwick Airport as demonstrators gather to protest against the UK government's intention to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

"Performative cruelty followed by last minute legal battles is not a way to run an asylum system,” he said, late on Tuesday night. “Or a country.”

For the UK Government, the flight, had it taken off, would have been, as Ms Patel herself has said, regarded as a “precedent”, paving the way for future deportations. Anyone who who did not come into Britain through a formal route – an application through the United Nations refugee arm, which must be made from a registered camp, or through a family visa scheme, which immigration lawyers warn is increasingly restrictive – knew they could be sent to Rwanda.

And the move would not be temporary. While being held in camps there, their cases would be processed. If successful, they would not be returned to the UK, but would instead be granted the right to stay in Rwanda, a country with a questionable human rights record.

Yet, with just 500 people a year due to have their applications processed in the East African nation, it is clear that rather than a viable way of tackling the growing number of asylum seekers arriving on British shores, the government had pitched it instead, as a threat, aimed at deterring anyone considering the illegal route. In comparison to the tiny number potentially taken off the UK Government's hands by Rwandan authorities, nearly 29,000 migrants crossed the Channel in 2021, with many more arriving illegally through other routes.

It is not yet clear what last night’s judgements will mean for the future of the policy.

Westminster insists its policy is a “deterrent” to people traffickers planning to bring desperate people to the UK in return for their life savings - yet human rights campaigners have condemned it as “cruel and nasty”. The government argues that if people know they could be deported to Rwanda, rather than being able to apply for leave to remain in the UK, they will not come.

But ECtHR did not agree, publishing an “urgent interim order” granted on an "exceptional basis, when the applicants would otherwise face a real risk of irreversible harm" in the case of an Iraqi man known as KT.

Campaigners have warned that detaining refugees in overseas asylum camps could put them at risk.

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A similar Rwanda deportation programme used under the radar by Israel a few years ago was quickly abandoned and did not work, a Rwandan government official admitted to journalists at the launch of the UK scheme. Many set to the country are believed to have used people traffickers to travel to Europe after being evicted by Israel.

Meanwhile, in Australia, a similar scheme in 2012 which saw asylum-seekers arriving by boat forcibly sent to the pacific island nation of Nauru and to Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where they were detained indefinitely. The policy, which came under fire for the poor treatment of asylum seekers on the detention islands, was scrapped after a few years.

London immigration barrister Jennifer Blair said: “I don't think people realise that refugees may be transported to Rwanda who have no connection to people smuggling at all and who were never transported by a smuggler or gang. They are random people sacrificed to make the UK look unwelcoming so other people won’t pay to come here.”

The introduction of the deportation to Rwanda has also raised comparisons with the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme, which is open to anyone fleeing the war-torn country.

While the UK Government has fought a legal battle in the High Court to deport a tiny number of people who it deems illegal, more than 70,000 Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed into the UK as they flee the Russian invasion of their country.

Sabir Zazai, chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, who himself arrived in the UK hidden in the back of a lorry – a method which under the current rules, would have potentially seen him earmarked for deportation – pointed to the difference.

"We cannot be compassionate on one hand and cruel on another,” he said. “All refugees, no matter where they come from or what route they take are fleeing dreadful conflicts, violence and human rights violations. Wars do not discriminate and so shouldn't we.”

He added: "We are a lot better than this. The Rwanda Migration Plan does not reflect the UK in which I and many others sought protection. Let's not forget that those being sent to Rwanda are people like me and people like you with hopes, aspirations and family.”

Screenwriter Adil Ray was less subtle: “Really simple question,” he wrote on Twitter. “Why are we sending Afghan, Syrian refugees to Rwanda but paying UK citizens to house those from Ukraine? It’s pretty black and white.”

One 23-year-old Kurdish detainee from Iran who was originally told he would be on the first flight while being held at a detention centre in Colnbrook, England, agreed.

“When the war in Ukraine started, all Ukrainians were welcomed and given better treatment,” he told news outlet Al Jazeera. “Since we are all refugees, I didn’t understand why I would be relocated to Rwanda when Ukrainians are welcomed, given a better life, shelter and everything they need."

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