This story has been updated after the first flight to Rwanda was grounded on Tuesday.
The first flight set to take asylum seekers from the United Kingdom to Rwanda was grounded shortly before it was due to depart Tuesday, the latest twist in a battle over a government policy critics call inhumane and “disgusting.”
Experts say the deal — which tasks Rwanda with accepting and resettling migrants who arrived in Britain illegally after crossing the English Channel — will set a dangerous precedent for other countries to use the same loophole in international refugee laws.
“It’s a really disgraceful instance of a wealthy country trying to avoid the minimal obligations that it has to protect refugees,” said Audrey Macklin, a professor and chair of human rights law at the University of Toronto.
“So it’s a pretty disgusting move.”
The Court of Appeal in London on Monday threw out a bid by human rights groups and campaigners to stop the first flight under the policy, refusing to issue a temporary injunction while a case challenging its legality moves through the courts.
But on Tuesday, shortly before the flight was set to depart, the European Court of Human Rights stepped in, ruling the policy carried “a real risk of irreversible harm” to the asylum seekers involved.
Here’s what you need to know about the controversial plan, and what happens next.
What is the deal between the U.K. and Rwanda?
The agreement between Britain and Rwanda was announced and signed in April, and will initially last for five years, according to the Rwandan government.
The deal came with an up-front payment to the African nation of £120 million ($188 million) to help pay for resettlement and integration. The U.K. has promised to make additional payments based on the number of people deported.
The plan will see some people who arrive in Britain as stowaways on trucks or in small boats picked up by the U.K. government and flown 6,400 kilometers to Rwanda on a one-way trip.
Asylum claims will then be processed there, and if successful, migrants will be allowed to stay.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the policy will become a deterrent against people-smuggling networks and stem the flow of migrants risking their lives crossing the Channel from northern France — long used as a launching ground for refugees fleeing war-torn or poverty-stricken countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The government says the number of migrants making those crossings is on the rise. Last year saw 28,526 arrivals detected, up from just 299 in 2018. Dozens have died over the years, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.
Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta said in April the agreement “is about ensuring that people are protected, respected, and empowered to further their own ambitions and settle permanently in Rwanda if they choose.”
He said his country is already home to more than 130,000 refugees from countries including Burundi, Congo, Libya and Pakistan.
Critics have voiced concern that Rwanda is not the safe haven Johnson’s government has painted it as. The UN has said Rwanda, whose own human rights record is under scrutiny, does not have the capacity to process the claims, and there is a risk some migrants could be returned to countries from which they had fled.
The risks migrants face in Rwanda include “indefinite detention, mistreatment including torture in detention, the lack of any independent judiciary, and also very, very worryingly, the fact that any form of dissent is quashed in Rwanda,” said Yasmine Ahmed, U.K. director for Human Rights Watch.
Is the plan legal?
Multiple court challenges were quickly filed after the agreement was signed, arguing it violates the 1951 Refugee Convention signed by United Nations members — including the U.K.
Macklin explains that under the Refugee Convention, refugees seeking asylum cannot be turned back to the country they are fleeing. However, the document doesn’t say anything about whether those refugees can be sent to a third country.
“That’s simply because nobody was thinking any country would resort to that,” Macklin said. “It was hard to imagine that happening back in 1951, so it wasn’t included. It wasn’t even on the horizon.”
She said the U.K. and other European nations that have taken a hardline stance against immigration, including Denmark, have interpreted that omission to mean using third countries is acceptable, which she called “disingenuous.”
The case challenging the agreement’s legality is due to be heard by the High Court of London in July. In the meantime, humanitarian groups have sought to block flights to Rwanda until that case is decided.
After a judge refused to issue a temporary injunction on Friday, a coalition of immigration rights advocates and public employees unions sought an appeal, which was rejected on Monday.
Under U.K. law, a court must find there is strong evidence a government policy is likely to be ruled illegal before it can issue a temporary injunction.
At least three more legal challenges seeking to remove individuals from the flights were heard on Tuesday.
What happens now?
Amid the legal challenges, the number of people bound for Rwanda on Tuesday’s flight had steadily declined.
The charity Care4Calais said Monday all but six of the 37 migrants originally told they would be on the first flight had their tickets cancelled, after lawyers challenged the merits of individual deportation orders.
The migrants originally scheduled to be on the flight included people fleeing Afghanistan and Syria as well as Iran and Iraq, according to the charity.
Tuesday’s last-minute injunction meant those remaining migrants would also no longer be bound for Rwanda.
“I have always said this policy will not be easy to deliver and am disappointed that legal challenge and last-minute claims have meant today’s flight was unable to depart,” the U.K.’s interior minister Priti Patel said.
“It is very surprising that the European Court of Human Rights has intervened despite repeated earlier success in our domestic courts.”
She said the government would not be deterred and would prepare for the next flight.
If the judicial review of the agreement next month finds the policy is illegal, it could result in anyone who was flown to Rwanda being shipped back to the U.K., restarting their asylum claim there.
In the meantime, Macklin says it will take further legal challenges and continued pressure from protesters and advocates to try to delay or outright stop the plan.
“Anything that makes it physically impossible for a flight to depart, where people are getting in the way of this policy being executed, is certainly one way,” she said.
“But it’s hard to be optimistic when no court so far has recognized … the irreparable harm this will do to an untold number of people while we wait to see if the policy will be upheld.”
— with files from Global’s Redmond Shannon, Reuters and the Associated Press