UK flight carrying migrants to Rwanda grounded after last-minute ECHR intervention

UK flight carrying migrants to Rwanda grounded after last-minute ECHR intervention
A flight scheduled to take asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda was grounded at the eleventh hour after the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg granted injunctions against the removal of the migrants.
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One individual originally put on the flight was an Iraqi man, who may have been tortured previously [source: Getty]

A first flight carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda as part of a controversial UK policy was cancelled on Tuesday, in an embarrassing blow to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government.

The number of those due to be put on the flight had dwindled from an original 130 to seven on Tuesday and finally none thanks to a last-minute ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

British Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was disappointed that "legal challenge and last-minute claims" meant the plane did not take off but vowed to pursue the heavily criticised policy.

"We will not be deterred," she said in a statement.

"Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now."

The grounding was thanks to an ECHR ruling that at least one of the asylum seekers should stay in Britain as there were no guarantees for his legal future in Rwanda, which earlier agreed to take in a number of refugees bound for the United Kingdom in a controversial deal with London.

Patel called the ECHR intervention "very surprising" and vowed that "many of those removed from this flight will be placed on the next".

The flight cancellation is an embarrassment for Johnson's Conservative government after Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted the Kigali-bound plane would leave no matter how many people were on board.

"There will be people on the flights and if they're not on this flight, they will be on the next flight," Truss told Sky News earlier on Tuesday.

But the ECHR issued an urgent interim measure to prevent the deportation of an Iraqi man booked on the flight as he may have been tortured and his asylum application was not completed.

The Strasbourg-based court said the expulsion should wait until British courts have taken a final decision on the legality of the policy, set for July.

British newspapers from across the political spectrum expressed outrage at the eleventh-hour reversal and the government's handling of the affair.

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The conservative Daily Mail and Daily Express placed the blame in the hands of "meddling judges in Strasbourg," expressing anger at what they called the "abuse of the legal system".

The left-leaning Daily Mirror, meanwhile, slammed the government's "cruel farce" and the "chaos" the policy had provoked.

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Rights group Care4Calais tweeted that the same measure by the ECHR could be applied to the others set to be transported to Rwanda.

Truss insisted the policy, which the UN refugee agency has criticised as "all wrong", was vital to break up human-trafficking gangs exploiting vulnerable migrants.

Migrants often travel across the English Channel in small boats because there are no safe legal routes available for them to claim asylum in the UK. 

British media said some 260 people attempting the crossing in small boats were brought ashore at the Channel port of Dover by 1200 GMT on Tuesday.

More than 10,000 have crossed since the start of the year.

Truss said she could not put a figure on the cost of the charter flight, which has been estimated at upwards of £250,000 ($303,000).

But she insisted it was "value for money" to reduce the long-term cost of irregular migration, which the government says costs UK taxpayers £1.5 billion a year, including £5 million a day on accommodation.

In the Channel port of Calais, in northern France, migrants said the risk of deportation to Rwanda would not stop them from trying to reach Britain.

Moussa, 21, from the Darfur region of Sudan, said "getting papers" was the attraction.

"That's why we want to go to England," he said.

Deported asylum seekers who eventually make the 4,000-mile (6,500-kilometre) trip to Kigali will be put up in the Hope Hostel, which was built in 2014 to give refuge to orphans from the 1994 genocide of around 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsis.

Hostel manager Ismael Bakina said up to 100 migrants can be accommodated at a rate of $65 per person a day and that "this is not a prison".

The government in Kigali has rejected criticism that Rwanda is not a safe country and that serious human rights abuses are rife.

But Rwandan opposition parties have questioned whether the resettlement scheme will work given high youth unemployment rates.