UK’s ‘unlawful’ deportation flight to Rwanda halted after European court intervenes 

Seven asylum seekers were due to be deported to Kigali on Tuesday night before the flight was canceled after a day of last-minute legal challenges and critical direct action protests

June 15, 2022 by Tanupriya Singh
Forced deportation of migrants UK
(Photo: Sandor Csudai)

The first flight set to deport asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda was halted on Tuesday, June 14, following major last-minute interventions by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). As of Tuesday morning, seven people were to be deported on the plane which was set to take off from the Ministry of Defense runway at Boscombe Down in Amesbury that night. This number was a fraction of the initial removal notices sent out by the Home Office, after several people were able to successfully challenge their deportation on an individual basis. 

However, concerns grew after two initial legal challenges and subsequent appeals were rejected by UK courts between June 10 and 14. Four people approached the High Court on Tuesday to seek an injunction against their deportation, however these pleas were denied. Among the seven people at imminent risk of removal was an Iraqi Kurd man who had suffered from PTSD in Turkey while traveling to the UK. In a eleventh hour intervention, the ECHR granted an urgent interim request to an Iraqi asylum-seeker. It was reported that the grounds could also apply to the remaining six cases, paving the way for lawyers to make successful last-minute applications in courts. 

The hours leading up to the flight also saw critical direct action and mobilizations. Several activists from the Stop Deportations grassroots network gathered outside the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Center in Heathrow. The remaining people slated to be on board the Home Office’s flight were being held at the facility. Protestors locked themselves together with metal pipes and blockaded exits to the facility as police officers and vans descended on the area. Over the next few hours, at least 18 activists were arrested and taken to police stations in Hammersmith, Charing Cross and Colindale. Stop Deportations also reported that at least one asylum seeker inside the Colnbrook center also resisted to help delay the flight. 

Meanwhile, protestors also gathered outside the military runway in Boscombe Down where the flight had been grounded. 

“This policy is the result of years of portraying migrants as less than human beings, it makes it possible for the Home Office to inflict pain on them and get away with it. We, the public, refuse to accept the Home Office’s cruel, inhuman, and unlawful plans. As the courts continue to be complicit with the violent border regime, the only way to resist this systematic racial oppression is continuing to show up and take to the streets,” stated one Stop Deportations activist in a press release

Back in April, the UK announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for asylum processing with Rwanda. As per its terms, anyone deemed to have arrived in the UK illegally as of January 1 could be at risk of transfer to Rwanda, which would then process their asylum and resettlement claims on arrival. The scheme was widely condemned as cruel, inhumane and unlawful, constituting a violation of the UK’s commitments under the Refugee Convention. 

“We cannot rely on the courts or politicians to stop this violent border regime which is why so many of us are coming together to take direct action against immigration enforcement….We will continue to build power and solidarity as Black, Brown, and Racialized people are targeted by borders prisons and police- because we must now organize to counter this fascist Government with love, care and community,” another activist stated.  

Initial challenges for interim relief and a full judicial review 

On June 10, lawyers representing asylum seekers, refugee charities Care4Calais and Detention Action, and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) approached the High Court in London. They sought an urgent interim order to halt the deportations planned for June 14, and a judicial review to determine the lawfulness of the scheme as a whole. They challenged parts of the policy including the right of Home Secretary Priti Patel to carry out these removals, the rationality of her claim that Rwanda was a “safe third country,” and Rwanda’s compliance with the Human Rights Act. 

The plea for interim relief was denied by Justice Jonathan Swift. However, the claimants were granted the permission to appeal. Justice Swift also declared that a full hearing on the case against the scheme would take place before the end of July, and that individual asylum seekers may still challenge their removal orders in court. In a hearing held in the Court of Appeal on June 13, Lord Justice Rabinder Singh rejected the appeal application, stating that the Court would not interfere in the High Court’s verdict. 

Meanwhile, a second application for general interim relief against Tuesday’s scheduled deportation, brought by Asylum Aid, was also rejected by the High Court on Monday. 

The Supreme Court also refused permission to a sole asylum seeker to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s ruling on June 14. The court’s president Lord Reed announced that the plea had been denied following an “assurance” from Home Secretary Priti Patel that if the removal policy was deemed unlawful and she was directed to ensure the appellant’s return from Rwanda to the UK, then she would comply with that order. 

In its injunction order on Tuesday, the ECHR stated that it had indicated to the UK government that the applicant must not be removed until three weeks after the final domestic decision was delivered in the ongoing judicial review proceedings. 

An estimated 130 people already in detention in the UK had been served notices of their possible deportation, out of which, lawyers for nearly 100 people submitted legal challenges. According to official figures, more than 28,500 people crossed the English Channel in small boats in 2021. The figure is expected to cross 60,000 by the end of this year. 

Intervention by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The UNHCR had opposed the agreement from the start, adding that it was not a part of the discussions between London and Kigali. It warned that such agreements often constituted a violation of international law, and that offshoring and externalization of asylum arrangements would only magnify risks and force refugees to seek alternative routes. 

The agency also submitted evidence in the first legal challenge against the deportations on June 10, arguing that the policy did not meet the standards of “legality and appropriateness”. During the first hearing for interim relief on June 10,  the UNHCR told the High Court that the Home Office had falsely claimed that the deportation policy had been approved by the agency. Letters sent to asylum seekers also claimed that the UNHCR had been “closely involved” in the process. Given these inaccuracies, Laura Dubinsky QC, representative for the UNHCR, reiterated that the agency “in no way endorses” the UK-Rwanda arrangement. She added that there were serious concerns about “irreparable harm” to refugees. 

Care4Calais estimated that over 70% of people served with removal notices for Rwanda had suffered torture or trafficking either in their home country, or on their journey to the UK. Dubinsky further stated that two meetings had been held between the UNHCR and the Home Office during which concerns had been raised. The Home Office was also informed by the agency that given the risk that refugees could be refouled (an illegal, forcible return of refugees to a country where they may face persecution), the policy was unlawful. 

An expanded legal analysis of the scheme also concluded that the arrangement between the UK and Rwanda did not meet the necessary requirements to be considered a “lawful and/or appropriate bilateral transfer arrangement.” It added that the arrangement acted as “an attempt to shift responsibility for identifying and meeting international protection needs from the UK to Rwanda, against the principles of burden-sharing [under the 1951 Refugee Convention]. Therefore, the UNHCR considers the arrangement as an example of externalization of international protection, and is, as such, unlawful.” 

The analysis noted that developing countries, including in Africa, continued to host the majority of the world’s refugees, with the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) providing asylum to one-third of the global total. 

The arrangement between the UK and Rwanda is also governed through an MoU, “whose terms include express stipulations that the arrangement is not binding in international law, and does not create or confer enforceable individual rights,” the UNHCR’s analysis read. 

Key issues highlighted include the initial screening interview which will determine whether an individual will be transferred to Rwanda. The UN has pointed to longstanding concerns about the quality of information that is collected, especially disclosure of vulnerabilities including  histories of sexual and gender-based violence. Once notified of their removal by UK authorities, asylum seekers will have only seven days to make written representations against their transfer. 

The UN agency has argued that this will place excessive onus on the asylum seeker, who may not have had sufficient access to legal advice. It has added that there are serious concerns that asylum seekers transferred to Rwanda will not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status, risking refoulement. This was also emphasized in the injunction order issued by the ECHR on Tuesday night. The UNHCR has also raised concerns about the ability of Rwanda’s asylum system to handle the processing of claims. Among the issues raised include the arbitrary denial of, and discriminatory access to, asylum procedures, and the lack of adequate representation and interpreters during the legal deliberations on claims. 

The struggle continues 

While Tuesday’s developments were a major victory, activists have warned that resistance efforts must continue, especially since the UK government has explicitly stated that it will not be deterred. Home Secretary Patel stated late on Tuesday, “Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now.” According to reports, Tuesday’s flight alone cost £500,000 in public funds at a time when millions across the UK are struggling to access food and energy. 

The deportations to Rwanda are part of the Boris Johnson-led government’s broader anti-immigrant, violent border policies. These have been justified as a crackdown on illegal “people smuggling”, which advocates argue distracts from the cruel border policies which push people into undertaking dangerous journeys in the first place. Others have also highlighted that asylum seekers are fleeing from countries which are tied to the UK because of “war, invasion, or colonization”. Advocates within the UK are now focusing their efforts on the upcoming judicial review set to take place in the next few weeks. 

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