First UK-Rwanda deportation flight set to go ahead after legal challenge fails

British government scheme to deter asylum seekers from entering UK branded ‘a dark chapter in global refugee rights’

The failure of a last-minute legal challenge means it is likely that asylum seekers will be flown from the UK to Rwanda on Tuesday in the first planned flight of a new anti-migration scheme.

The scheme would see asylum seekers sent to Rwanda where they could then have their requests for international protection assessed and potentially be given refugee status. The British government hopes this will act as a deterrent, stopping refugees and asylum seekers from crossing the sea from France to the UK. It differs from an EU-funded evacuation scheme which began in 2019, and uses Rwanda as a transit country for refugees and asylum seekers evacuated from Libya, who are usually resettled to North America or Europe after their claims are assessed. With the UK scheme, refugees would be expected to stay in Rwanda.

One asylum seeker who arrived in the UK this year, after years of exploitation and detention en route to Europe, described the efforts as “disgusting”.

An Eritrean refugee who recently arrived in Europe, and has friends going through the asylum system in the UK, said he was worried about suicide attempts among those forced to leave. To make it to the UK, he said, “they wasted a lot of money, risked their lives and their time ... It’s really hard. They’d rather die than going to Rwanda.”

Britain’s Court of Appeal heard on Tuesday that the number of people supposed to be on the flight had been reduced to 11, from an original 37. Charity Care4Calais, which was challenging the scheme, later said another three tickets were cancelled.

Last week, campaigners failed to win an earlier attempt to get an injunction, and they lost their appeal on Monday.

In an open letter to the British Home Office, Human Rights Watch said Rwanda was not a safe country, and that ongoing abuses included “repression of free speech, arbitrary detention, ill treatment and torture by Rwandan authorities”. The US-headquartered human rights organisation has been documenting the situation in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide, during which about 800,000 people were killed over 100 days.

Last year, the UK government said it was concerned “by continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom” in Rwanda, recommending that the country conduct independent investigations into allegations of enforced disappearances and torture, deaths in custody and allegations of extrajudicial killings, and begin to allow journalists to work freely.

In a statement sent to The Irish Times on Monday, Sophie McCann, advocacy officer at Médecins Sans Frontières UK, said if the flight went ahead it would mark “a dark chapter in global refugee rights”.

“MSF has witnessed such suffering on Nauru island, where Australia enacted a similar policy of forced removals and ‘offshore processing’,” she said. People moved there were “significantly” more likely to be suicidal or diagnosed with serious psychiatric conditions.

Ms McCann also said she was worried that children who had been incorrectly age assessed and survivors of torture, who require specific medical and psychological care, could be among the people sent to Rwanda. “The UK government must abandon this policy, which is effectively tantamount to state-sanctioned trafficking, before any more harm is done.”

There are currently more than 120,000 refugees in Rwanda, including more than 82,000 from the neighbouring DR Congo and 25,000 from Burundi.

The House of Lords has said it will carry out an inquiry into the deal, issuing a call for written evidence to be submitted by June 20th — after the first flight is scheduled to take off. Baroness Hayter, chair of the International Agreements Committee, said because the deal was agreed using a memorandum of understanding it was not put to debate in parliament. “While it is not classed as a treaty ... it has significant human rights implications, and there are questions over its compatibility with the UK’s obligations, particularly under international law,” she said.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa