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U.K. vows more Rwanda deportation flights after legal setback

A soldier carries a child from a group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, England, by Border Force, following a small boat incident in the Channel, Tuesday June 14, 2022.
Andrew Matthews
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AP
A soldier carries a child from a group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, England, by Border Force, following a small boat incident in the Channel, Tuesday June 14, 2022.

The British government vowed Wednesday to organize more flights to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, after a last-minute court judgment grounded the first plane due to take off under the contentious policy.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said "preparation for the next flight begins now" despite legal rulings that none of the migrants earmarked for deportation could be sent to the East African country.

Under a deal signed in April between Britain and Rwanda, the U.K. government plans to send some migrants who arrive in the U.K. as stowaways or in small boats to Rwanda, where their asylum claims will be processed. If successful, they will stay in the African country, rather than returning to Britain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government says the plan is a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart the criminal gangs that send migrants on risky journeys across the English Channel.

Human rights groups argue that the plan rides roughshod over the protections afforded to refugees under rules set up after World War II. They have called the idea unworkable, inhumane and a waste of money — Britain paid Rwanda 120 million pounds ($150 million) up front for the deal.

Critics include leaders of the Church of England and — according to British news reports — heir to the throne Prince Charles, who is due to visit Rwanda next week as representative of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.

U.K. courts refused last week to ground the first flight, scheduled for Tuesday, but the number due to be aboard was whittled down by appeals and legal challenges. The European Court of Human Rights— an international tribunal supported by 46 countries including the U.K. — ruled late Tuesday that an Iraqi man due to be on the plane shouldn't fly, saying he faced "a real risk of irreversible harm." That allowed the final few migrants on the plane to win reprieve.

The grounded Rwanda deportation flight EC-LZO Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down Air Base, on June 14, 2022 in Boscombe Down.
Dan Kitwood / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The grounded Rwanda deportation flight EC-LZO Boeing 767 at Boscombe Down Air Base, on June 14, 2022 in Boscombe Down.

U.K. Cabinet minister Therese Coffey said the government was "surprised and disappointed" by the ruling.

"I think the public will be surprised at European judges overruling British judges," she told Sky News.

In fact, the European court didn't overrule British decisions, which declined to ground the flight as a whole. The ECJ dealt with the cases of individuals due to be aboard.

A full trial of the legality of the U.K. government plan is due to be heard in the British courts by the end of July.

Human rights lawyer Frances Swaine, who represents one of the people due to be sent to Rwanda, urged the government to wait for that decision before organizing any more deportation flights.

"I would be sitting back and thinking was it worth it, either from a financial or a legal perspective, to organize one of these very expensive flights again when they've been so unsuccessful this time around on legal grounds," she said.

The British government says it welcomes refugees who come by approved immigration routes, but wants to put the criminal smuggling gangs who operate dangerous Channel crossings out of business.

Migration and refugee groups point out that there are no approved legal routes for most people, with the exception of those fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine. The U.K. receives fewer asylum applications than comparably sized European countries such as France and Germany.

More than 28,000 migrants entered the U.K. across the Channel last year, up from 8,500 in 2020, and about 10,000 have arrived so far this year. Dozens have died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press