Britain’s plan to fly asylum seekers 6,000 kilometers to Rwanda faces a last-minute legal challenge.
The first flight is scheduled to leave June 14, carrying up to 100 migrants. However, a group of non-governmental organizations and refugee campaigners have launched a legal case at the High Court in London to seek an injunction blocking the flight. A decision is expected in coming days.
Among the plaintiffs is Clare Moseley, the founder of the charity Care4Calais. “People come from Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran. They are all terrified. They have all fled their home countries due to absolutely terrible circumstances. A number of them have suffered extreme torture or trafficking,” Moseley told Reuters.
So far this year, more than 10,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel in small boats or inflatable dinghies to reach Britain. The route takes them across the busiest shipping lane in the world. Dozens of people have died attempting the crossing, including small children.
Britain says the flow has to stop. Earlier this year British Home Secretary Priti Patel signed a five-year deal, which would see up to 30,000 migrants forcefully deported to Rwanda, where they would be processed through Rwanda’s asylum system. Patel said it would act as a deterrent to migrants hoping to cross the channel.
Britain agreed to pay Rwanda an initial $149 million and cover the operational costs of the plan, estimated at between $25,000 to $35,000 per migrant.
“Every country has a different approach to migration issues and challenges. We in the United Kingdom are very unique. We are an island country. We've also faced flows of literally over 20,000 people in the last calendar year, coming to our country through dangerous routes and dying in the channel, but also dying in the Mediterranean,” Patel told reporters May 19.
“We're a government along with our partners, the government of Rwanda, finding new, innovative solutions to global problems,” Patel added.
The migrants would be housed in converted houses and hostels in Rwanda.
“At some point once their status has been fixed, they will have to go and live with other Rwandans. But they will be free. They will not be prisoners,” Rwandan government spokesperson Alain Mukurarinda told Associated Press May 19.
“We have the experience of welcoming refugees and we Rwandans have also experienced this situation of being a refugee. So, if there is a way to solve this problem by saving lives, I don't think Rwanda could not accept,” Mukurarinda added.
However, the policy has been widely criticized, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “UNHCR understands the frustration of the UK government on that and is not in favor of channel crossing, of course. We think there's more effective ways and more humane ways to address this,” Larry Bottinick, a senior legal officer at the UNHCR, told the Associated Press.
Critics say the policy breaches international refugee conventions, to which Britain is a signatory. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the judge will rule in the migrants’ favor, says immigration lawyer Colin Yeo, author of the book Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System.
“States shouldn't breach treaties that they've signed up to in good faith, but if you're an individual who's relying on that treaty, it doesn't mean that you can just say, ‘well it's a breach of international law, therefore you can't do it to me.’ There's got to be some domestic UK law that you rely on because those treaties don't automatically become part of British law,” Yeo told VOA.
Lawyers for the migrants argue they could be denied a fair hearing in the Rwandan asylum system. Separately, lawyers are also arguing that specific individuals scheduled to be on the flight should not be sent to Rwanda.
“So it could be somebody who's been a victim of trafficking for example. It could be somebody who has been wrongly assessed as being an adult, and actually they say they're a child. It could be somebody who's got a serious illness,” Yeo said.
Some of the migrants could also argue that they would face discrimination in Rwanda - for example, if they are from the LGBTQ+ community. “Apparently there's no anti-discrimination laws, there are reports that some people have been denied access to the asylum system on that basis,” Yeo added.