Boris Johnson’s “desperate and cruel” policy to deter asylum-seekers was in disarray last night after the handful of migrants on the first deportation flight to Rwanda won a last-minute legal reprieve.
The £500,000 taxpayer-funded flight was halted minutes before it was due to take off following interventions by the European Court of Human Rights.
It came despite ministers earlier insisting the flight would go ahead no matter how few were on board.
It is understood appeals were granted by an out-of-hours ECHR judge while the migrants were on their way from a detention centre near Heathrow to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire from where a chartered aircraft was aleady waiting to take them to Rwanda.
With no route for the Home Office to appeal the decision, the flight was abandoned shortly before 10pm.
Home secretary Priti Patel insisted the plan will continue, saying: “Many of those removed from this flight will be placed on the next. Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now.
“We will not be deterred from doing the right thing and delivering our plans.”
Earlier, lawyers for home secretary Priti Patel were forced to confirm in court that Britain would bring individuals back from Rwanda if the policy is ruled unlawful in a judicial review next month.
Ministers have previously claimed the policy would deter migrants from embarking on perilous trips by dinghy across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and the Rwanda flights are being publicised in Calais and other embarkation points. And Boris Johnson boasted that the policy – branded “immoral” by Church of England bishops – could see tens of thousands sent to the African country.
The Refugee Council said government claims of a deterrent effect “have already been disproven” by the numbers continuing to travel across the Channel.
“We always knew these measures would do little to stop desperate people making dangerous journeys to the UK, because they do absolutely nothing to address the reasons people come,” said chief executive Enver Solomon.
Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) head of policy Zoe Gardner told The Independent there was no evidence that the “desperate and cruel” Rwanda flights will stem the flow of boats.
“This will not make refugees disappear,” she said. “We’ve told this government time and again what would prevent perilous crossings and save lives – and that’s safe routes for people seeking sanctuary here.”
About 250 people are believed to have arrived in the UK on Tuesday, as courts in London rejected the pleas of four migrants – three Iranian men and one from Vietnam – to halt their removal.
But a 5pm injunction from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) saw an Iraqi man in his 50s taken off the deportation list just hours before he was due to board the 200-seater Boeing 767 jet at Boscombe Down.
The ECHR said that medical examinations of the man, who left Iraq in April and crossed the Channel by small boat before claiming asylum on 17 May, showed signs of possible torture. Its ruling took into account the assessment of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that asylum seekers do not have access to “fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status” in Rwanda and that no legally enforceable mechanism exists to ensure their return to the UK.
Similar injunctions were later granted for the remaining deportees until none were left.
Mr Johnson hinted that he may be ready to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights to ensure the continued operation of the scheme.
Asked if the controversial move was on the table, he replied: “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.”
The prime minister also provoked fury in the legal profession by accusing those fighting the deportations of “abetting the work of the criminal gangs” of people smugglers.
In a joint statement, the Bar Council and Law Society responded: “It is misleading and dangerous for the prime minister to suggest lawyers who bring such legal challenges are doing anything other than their job and upholding the law.
“Anyone at risk of a life-changing order has a right to challenge its legality with the assistance of a lawyer, who has a duty to advise their client on their rights.”
And Mr Johnson came under fire over the estimated bill of more than £80,000 per head for the chartered flight, with former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell telling The Independent: “It would be cheaper to put them up in the Ritz for a year on half-board with a bottle of champagne every lunchtime.”
As Anglican bishops signed a joint letter denouncing the scheme, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said: “Deporting asylum seekers should shame us as a nation.”
And Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the deportation programme was “unworkable, unethical, extortionately expensive and risks making smuggling and trafficking worse.
“The government has ended up targeting torture victims instead of trafficking gangs,” said Ms Cooper.
Numbers of weekly arrivals detected by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) have fallen from the 1,071 recorded at the time the policy was announced on 14 April to between 190 and 762 in subsequent weeks.
The latest official figures saw 138 arrive on Monday, while BBC reporters on the scene estimated around 250 were helped to shore on Tuesday.
The fluctuating figures are heavily influenced by factors such as the weather and sea conditions, and there is little sign of a return to the levels seen as recently as 2019, when fewer than 2,000 made the crossing in a year.
Chief inspector of borders and immigration David Neal last week told MPs he had seen no sign of arrival numbers being reduced by the scheme, while the Home Office’s top civil servant Matthew Rycroft told Ms Patel in a letter in April that “evidence of a deterrent effect is highly uncertain”.
Up to 130 people were initially told they could be on the inaugural Rwanda flight. Home Office sources said that work was underway to overcome legal barriers preventing removals, and many of those who avoided today’s flight can be expected to be on the next, expected to depart within weeks.
Many of those involved are understood to be in detention, and if the policy survives judicial review, further planes are expected to be chartered to take them to Rwanda as and when their cases are processed.
In a press conference in Kigali, Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo said they were expecting to receive “thousands” of deportees over the life of the partnership signed with Britain.
Challenged over the cost to the taxpayer of the exercise, a UK government source said that the bill for the asylum system currently stands at £1.5bn a year, with £5m spent each week on housing migrants.
“The savings to the taxpayer will come,” said the source. “With people dying and our borders insecure, what cost are people saying is too much to deter these crossings?”
Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais, which is bringing judicial review proceedings alongside Detention Action and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), described the removals as “absolutely shocking and horrifying” and said the planned series of flights would be “costly and ineffective”.
“You have to question the motivation,” said Ms Moseley. “It’s not because they want to stop people traffickers and save lives, because if they wanted to do that they would open up more safe routes for refugees.”
And Graeme McGregor of Detention Action said it was “absolutely absurd to send a handful of people to Rwanda in an attempt to scare people.”
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