British government's 1st asylum seeker deportation flight to Rwanda called off

Britain's first scheduled flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda was due to depart on Tuesday, with the government warning anyone who avoided it through last-minute legal challenges would be put on a later flight, despite the outcry from critics.

Dozens were scheduled to go on initial flight, but legal challenges appear to have reduced number

Britain calls off deportation flight to Rwanda

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
The British government has postponed its first scheduled flight to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, according to multiple British media reports.

The British government has grounded its first scheduled flight to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, under a controversial agreement, according to multiple British media reports. 

The cancellation of the flight, which was set to carry just seven people to the African nation, followed a last-minute European Court of Human Rights injunction, that followed failed attempts to halt the flight in U.K. courts. The Boeing 767 was due to depart at 10:30 p.m. local time.

The European court granted the injunction "in the case of one of the asylum seekers, an Iraqi national who fled to Turkey in April, then crossed the English Channel by boat," a statement from the court reads. It said the man made an asylum claim upon arriving in the U.K. in May, saying he was in danger in his home country.

An out-of-hours court judge proceeded to examine the cases of each of the other asylum seekers due to be deported. 

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel expressed disappointment about the cancellation but vowed the government would "not be deterred." 

"It is very surprising that the European Court of Human Rights has intervened despite repeated earlier success in our domestic courts," the Guardian quoted her saying. "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."

Earlier in the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson beat back criticism of his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, saying that efforts to block the flights were "abetting the work of criminal gangs" involved in smuggling people across borders.

Britain reached a 120-million-pound ($188 million Cdn) deal with Rwanda to send some migrants, who had arrived illegally by crossing the English Channel in small boats from Europe, to live in the landlocked African country. Rwanda is to receive development aid.

The policy has faced a series of legal challenges, but the U.K. Supreme Court refused to hear one last-ditch appeal Tuesday after lower courts refused to block the deportations.

Johnson insisted the government would not be cowed by those attacking the strategy and told cabinet ministers that "we are going to get on and deliver" the plan.

Migrants are shown on the English Border Force boat Valiant after attempting the crossing of the English Channel from France, on Tuesday in Dover, England. Boris Johnson's government has been trying to drastically reduce the number of crossing attempts across the channel. (Chris Eades/Getty Images)

The plan has sparked heated protest in the U.K. Twenty-five Church of England bishops, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, wrote an open letter describing the deportation plans as an "immoral policy that shames Britain."

"Our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries," the bishops wrote in the letter to the Times of London.

Newspaper reports say Prince Charles has also waded into the issue. The heir to the throne privately described the Rwanda policy as "appalling," the Times reported over the weekend, citing an unidentified source.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, has also lashed out at the policy, describing it as "all wrong." He said the British government should work with other countries to target the people smugglers and provide safe routes for asylum seekers, not simply shunt migrants to other countries.

Reaction from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby:

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told diplomats in Kigali that his country and the U.K. aren't engaged in buying and selling people, but instead trying to solve a global migration problem.

Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and still among the least developed, despite its focus on modernizing since the country's 1994 genocide. The migrants who sought better lives in Britain are expected to find fewer chances to pursue their dreams here, even as Rwandan officials describe their country as having a proud history of welcoming those in need.

A bedroom is seen inside the Hope Hostel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, one of the locations expected to house some of the asylum seekers due to be sent from Britain. (The Associated Press)

Kagame has ruled for over two decades, earning a reputation as an efficient but autocratic leader. The U.S. State Department in its most recent report on the human rights situation in the country cites "credible reports" of forced detentions and disappearances of citizens, and the stifling of freedom of speech and association.

Sensitivities around the arrival of the first asylum seekers from Britain are so high that Rwandan officials are barring media from interviewing the new arrivals.

"Maybe later, when they have settled," said Claude Twishime, a spokesman for the Ministry of Emergency Management, which will take charge of their care.

One of those who has found a foothold is Urubel Tesfaye, a 22-year-old from Ethiopia who is happy he found a part-time job in a bakery in Rwanda's capital, Kigali. But his friends speak of moving on to Canada or the Netherlands.

Even those who came straight to Rwanda to escape troubles at home say the country, while peaceful, isn't easy.

"When you are not employed, you cannot survive here," said Kelly Nimubona, a refugee from neighbouring Burundi. "We cannot afford to eat twice a day. There is no chance to get a job or do vending on the street." But he described Rwanda as an oasis of order in a tumultuous region.

Those set to arrive under Rwanda's new agreement with Britain will be housed in shelters around Kigali with features like private rooms, televisions and a swimming pool. At one, the Hope Hostel, a security guard patrols outside, and clocks in the lobby show the times in London and Paris.

"This is not a prison," manager Bakinahe Ismail said.

With files from CBC News