LONDON/DOVER (REUTERS) - Britain's first scheduled flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda did not take off as scheduled on Tuesday (June 14) after the European human rights court issued last-minute injunctions to stop the deportation of the handful of migrants on board.
The British government’s plan to send some migrants to the East African country has been criticised by opponents, charities, and religious leaders who say it is inhumane, and it has been forced to fight a series of legal challenges in London courts to stop it going ahead.
Just a handful of migrants were set to fly from an air force base in southwest England on Tuesday, but shortly before the plane was due to leave, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) granted injunctions to prevent their deportations.
“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,” Home Secretary (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.
The flight was cancelled after the plane’s engines had been started and cabin crew was seen boarding.
The ECHR’s ruling relating to one of the men, an Iraqi, stated he “should not be removed until the expiry of a period of three weeks following the delivery of the final domestic decision in the ongoing judicial review proceedings.”
The High Court in London is due to hold this judicial review in July to decide on the legality of the scheme.
Britain had struck a £120 million (S$206 million) deal with Rwanda to send some migrants who had arrived illegally by crossing the Channel in small boats from Europe, to live in the landlocked African country, stemming the flow of dangerous cross-Channel trips and smash the business model of people-smuggling networks.
But the plan horrified political opponents, charities and religious leaders who say it is inhumane.
The United Nations' refugee chief called it "catastrophic", the entire leadership of the Church of England denounced it as an "immoral policy that shames Britain" and media reports have said Prince Charles has privately described the plan as "appalling".
The government says the deportation strategy is needed to stem the flow of migrants risking their lives in Channel crossings and smash the people-smuggling networks.
A government official, who asked not to be named, said there was the possibility individual legal challenges might mean the private plane the government has chartered leaves on Tuesday evening with no asylum seekers on it.
The courts have thrown out last-ditch bids by human rights groups and campaigners to halt the flight, but London's High Court is hearing further cases before it departs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said his government would not be put off by criticism, “some of it from slightly unexpected quarters,” had earlier commented that legal bids were undermining attempts to support safe routes for asylum seekers.
"We are not going to be in any way deterred or abashed by some of the criticism that has been directed upon this policy, some of it from slightly unexpected quarters, we are going to get on deliver," he told his cabinet ministers.
Asked if Britain might withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, he said: “It is certainly the case that... the legal world is very good at picking up ways of trying to stop the government from upholding what we think is a sensible law.
“Will it be necessary to change some laws to help us as we go along? It may very well be and all these options are under constant review.”
Ms Sangeeta Shah, a professor of international law and human rights at the University of Nottingham said Britain would be joining Belarus and Russia in not being part of the convention if it did opt out. Last week, Russia’s parliament passed bills to end the European court’s jurisdiction.
“Britain would be saying, ‘we don’t believe in a system that the whole of the rest of Europe does believe in’,” she said.
According to government figures, more than 28,500 people were detected arriving in Britain on small boats last year.
Dozens more, including women and young children, arrived on Tuesday morning, a Reuters witness in the Channel port of Dover said. More than 130 people have been given deportation notices, with 37 originally scheduled to be removed on Tuesday.
Charities have said this included people fleeing Afghanistan and Syria as well as Iran and Iraq.
However, a string of successful legal challenges has reduced that number to seven, according to charity Care4Calais.
At least three High Court appeals were due to be heard on Tuesday. The first case involved an Iranian national who has mental health problems and would be at risk of committing suicide if deported to Rwanda, his lawyer told the court.
"There will be people on this flight and if they're not on this flight, they will be on the next flight because we are determined to break the model of the appalling people traffickers," Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News. "The really important thing is that we establish the principle."
Human rights groups say the policy will put migrants at risk.
The UNHCR 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.
A full hearing to determine the legality of the policy as a whole is due in July.