The UK's Controversial Rwanda Asylum Plan Explained As Legal Challenge Fails

The first flight "offshoring" migrants more than 4,000 miles away is set to go ahead as campaigners lose High Court fight.
Home secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international co-operation, Vincent Biruta, sign a memorandum of understanding.
Home secretary Priti Patel and Rwandan minister for foreign affairs and international co-operation, Vincent Biruta, sign a memorandum of understanding.
Flora Thompson via PA Wire/PA Images

A widely-criticised plans to fly migrants who cross the English Channel in small boats more than 4,000 miles to Rwanda is set to go-ahead after a High Court ruling.

The controversial scheme, announced in April, was facing a legal challenge from campaigners who wanted to block the first deportation flight next week.

The plan was introduced after home secretary Priti Patel came under sustained pressure to stop asylum seekers making the perilous journeys to the UK. But it faced opposition from it infancy, with even senior members of the Church of England condemning the initiative.

Others suggested the policy was being used as a distraction from Boris Johnson’s problems after he was fined by police for breaching his own coronavirus laws. Commentators also argued a fight with campaigners was exactly what the Tory government wanted, as it provided “red meat” for supporters in favour of tougher immigration rules.

What is the Rwanda scheme?

The move was initially billed as a plan to “offshore” some asylum seekers to Rwanda for “processing” – but it quickly became clear the agreement would see illegal immigrants flown one-way and not return to the UK.

Johnson said the agreement was “uncapped” and that Rwanda will have the “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead”. Officials were putting that figure at closer to thousands in the first years.

Patel said the “vast majority” of those who arrive in the UK through means deemed “illegal” – such as on unauthorised boats or stowed away in lorries – would be considered for relocation.

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel.
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought in to Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel.
Gareth Fuller via PA Wire/PA Images

The taxpayer would foot the bill for the five-year agreement. Britain promised Rwanda an initial £120 million as part of an “economic transformation and integration fund” but the UK will be paying for operational costs too.

The Refugee Council claimed costs could soar to £1.4 billion, citing a report based on the Australian offshore processing system, which is seen as the inspiration for the UK scheme. But the Home Office questioned the figure, with a source saying it was “ludicrous to suggest costs would be more than the current system”.

Ministers argued Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world. But critics have aired their concerns over the African nation’s “dismal” and “questionable” human rights record.

What is the point?

Johnson said he hoped the plan would be a “very considerable deterrent” and break the business model of the “vile people smugglers” who risk turning the Channel into a “watery graveyard”.

But refugee charities argued the plans do nothing to alleviate the pressures forcing migrants to take the extraordinary step of paying criminals to pack them into unsafe boats to cross a perilous shipping lane.

Despite the publicity around the scheme, crossings have continued. On Tuesday, children clutching teddy bears were seen being carried ashore as the number of migrants who have crossed the Channel to the UK so far this year hit 10,000.

What did critics say?

Charities warned the “cruel and nasty decision” would fail to address the issue, “lead to more human suffering and chaos” while potentially costing millions. Labour hit out at the “unworkable, unethical” plan.

Sir David Normington, who has served as permanent secretary at the Home Office, said the scheme was “inhumane, morally reprehensible, probably unlawful and may well be unworkable”.

Perhaps the most eye-catching criticism came from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who used his Easter sermon to describe “sub-contracting out our responsibilities” as “ungodly”.

Several Afghans who fled to the UK after the Taliban takeover are among more than 100 migrants due to be sent to Rwanda on the first flight, according to campaigners seeking the legal action.

What was argued in court?

Even before the legal action, Johnson said he was braced for the policy to be challenged in the courts, as he criticised a “formidable army of politically motivated lawyers” who want to “thwart removals”.

The first stage of action was brought on Friday by lawyers on behalf of two migrants alongside the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), which represents more than 80% of Border Force staff, as well as groups Care4Calais and Detention Action who are challenging the policy on behalf of everyone affected.

Up to 130 people had been notified they could be removed. The court heard 31 people were due on the first flight on Tuesday, with the Home Office planning to schedule more this year.

Lawyers for almost 100 migrants had submitted legal challenges asking to stay in the UK with the remaining anticipated to follow suit.

During the hearing, Raza Husain QC, for the claimants, told the court the “procedure is simply unsafe” and called for an evidence-based assessment for the policy, “not an aspirational basis, or hopes”.

Husain also told the court that assertions by the Home Office that UN refugee agency the UNHCR had given the plans the “green light” was a “false claim”.

Home Office lawyers said legal action should not be allowed to derail the plans and urged the court to reject the application, arguing there was a “strong public interest in permitting these removals to proceed as scheduled” and a “clear public interest in deterring the making of dangerous journeys and the activities of criminal smugglers”.

What did the court say?

On Friday, Judge Mr Justice Swift ruled against the claim and said: “I do not consider that the balance of convivence favours the grant of the generic relief.”

Shortly after the judgment was concluded, Justice Swift granted the claimants permission to appeal, suggesting Court of Appeal judges would hear the case on Monday.

Johnson tweeted after the verdict: “Welcome news from the High Court today. We cannot allow people traffickers to put lives at risk and our world leading partnership will help break the business model of these ruthless criminals.”


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