A protester holds a placard during a demonstration against the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, outside the Home Office, London, United Kingdom, on June 6 2022.
Hesther Ng—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
June 14, 2022 10:43 AM EDT

The U.K. government is due to carry out its first-ever deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda today, under a controversial new policy that activists say could upend the principle of asylum on a global scale.

The chartered flight, which will carry only a small fraction of the more than 100 people originally scheduled to fly, is set to leave late on Tuesday local time, after last-minute legal challenges to block its departure failed.

The flight, the U.K. government hopes, will be one of many to the East African country as part of a deal struck between Boris Johnson’s government and Rwanda in April. In exchange for an initial payment of £120 million ($155 million) plus operational costs, Rwanda has agreed to permanently resettle asylum seekers in the country.

According to Johnson, Rwanda has “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead” and that there is no cap on numbers.

Prominent figures, including Prince Charles, the UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi, and the entire leadership of the Church of England have condemned the plans. The Prince of Wales privately described the policy as “appalling,” according to The Times of London—a significant assessment from the heir to the British throne, who is expected to maintain political neutrality.

A coalition of human rights charities—Care4Calais, Detention Action, and the Public and Commercial Services Union—sought an injunction on the flight but the claim was rejected by a high court judge on Friday, who said that there was a “material public interest” in allowing Home Secretary Priti Patel—herself the daughter of Indian migrants from Uganda who arrived in the U.K. in the 1960s—to implement immigration control measures. A last-minute attempt to appeal the ruling at a higher court was subsequently refused on Monday, as was another injunction attempt that day brought by the charity Asylum Aid.

“While we can still expect further legal challenges and last-minute claims, we have always maintained that everything we are doing is compliant with our national and international obligations,” a spokesperson for the Home Office, tells TIME.

According to Toufique Hossain, one of the lawyers representing the coalition and some of the asylum seekers, seven of the more than 100 people originally scheduled to be removed to Rwanda will actually be on the plane. The rest have succeeded in individual claims to delay their deportation.

“This policy goes to the very heart of challenging human dignity, and is in breach of both domestic and international law,” says Hossain, referring to the U.K.’s Human Rights Act 1998 and the multilateral U.N. 1951 Refugee Convention, which enshrine asylum seekers’ right to protection.

Read more: How the U.K. Immigration Bill Could Erode Citizenship Rights

Why the asylum deal matters

What makes the deal different to, and campaigners say, harsher than other countries’ offshore migrant processing programs is that people with successful claims to asylum will have to start their new lives in Rwanda.

Rwanda has a murky human rights record—the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented frequent attacks on freedom of speech, the abuse of LGBTQ+ people, and the use of excessive force against refugees. The U.K. government has publicly acknowledged some of these concerns. But the Home Office spokesperson tells TIME that “Rwanda is a safe country and has previously been recognised for providing a safe haven for refugees.”

HRW and other groups have, however, accused the U.K. government of downplaying and ignoring the real risks. “The government has wholly mischaracterized Rwanda, saying that it’s a Safe Third Country,” says Yasmine Ahmed, U.K. director of HRW. Rwanda has achieved impressive development gains since its 1994 genocide, which saw at least 800,00 people slaughtered. But this, Ahmed says, does not equate to an impressive human rights record.

Although the last-minute attempts to block the flight were rejected, the courts have yet to rule on the actual legality of the government policy, which the high court judge said could take six weeks. If the policy is found to be unlawful, those who have already been sent to Rwanda will be able to return to the U.K. to seek asylum. Clare Moseley, the founder of Care4Calais, one of the charities that sought the injunction, says that even the experience of the initial deportation could significantly “retraumatize” these individuals, many of whom say they are victims of trafficking and torture.

Moseley adds that many of the asylum seekers were extremely distressed after the Monday court hearing. She says an Iranian man, who is one of the seven due to fly out, couldn’t bear the idea of being separated from his adult son in the U.K., and his wife and two daughters who are still in Iran.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made a rare intervention in publicly opposing the U.K.-Rwanda asylum policy. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing,” the body said in a statement.

The politics behind the deal

Having rode to victory in the 2019 general election on the promise to “get Brexit done,” Johnson has been under considerable pressure by Conservative Party members to take a hardline stance on migrants. The 2016 Brexit campaign was characterized by a desire to “take back control” of Britain’s borders, given the free movement of E.U. nationals into the U.K. as well as the influx of 1.3 million asylum seekers to the bloc in 2015. (Relative to its population size, the U.K took in the smallest share of asylum seekers, according to Pew Research Center.)

“We must ensure that the only route to asylum in the U.K. is a safe and legal one,” Johnson said on Apr. 14 in a speech in Kent, southeast England, where nearly 30,000 migrants in small boats landed on beaches last year after crossing the English Channel.

Read more: Europe Sees a Migration Crisis in the Making in Afghanistan

“Those who try to jump the queue or abuse our systems will find no automatic path to set them up in our country, but rather be swiftly and humanely removed to a safe third country or their country of origin,” Johnson said at the time. The risk of ending up in Rwanda should be a “considerable deterrent” to people seeking safety in the U.K, he added.

The paradox of Brexit is that it makes it harder for the U.K. to relinquish responsibility for asylum seekers who traveled to the country through Europe. Under E.U. law, member states can return migrants to the first country they arrived at within the bloc. Critics of the Rwanda deal say the U.K. is now trying to compensate for its exclusion from those laws.

Although the U.K. is the first European country to pursue the hardline policy, similar tactics have been used by Australia since 2012 and Israel since 2015. Data from 2013 to 2021 shows that Australia transferred more than 3,000 asylum seekers who crossed to the country by boat to offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. HRW has documented incidents of severe abuse, medical neglect, sub-standard living conditions, and suicides among the camp detainees. Some people have spent years in limbo, unable to return to safety in their home countries nor be accepted by Australia.

Critics argue that Australia’s externalization of the asylum process, which costs the government approximately 1 billion Australian dollars ($691 million) a year, has failed to deter further sea crossings. More asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat in the first 12 months of the offshore policy than at any other time in history or since, according to government figures.

Israel struck a deal in 2015 with an unnamed African country—reportedly Rwanda or Uganda—to accept refugees who fled to the country. The asylum seekers were given the choice of returning to their home country—mainly in north and east Africa, accepting a payment of around $3,270 and plane ticket to the east African countriesor being sent to jail in Israel. Around 30% of migrants who arrived irregularly had left Israel under the scheme by 2018, according to the government.

Although the U.K. won’t be the first country to trial the offshore asylum system, experts believe it sets a dangerous precedent that other high-income countries may follow. Seeing a major economy pursue this approach risks “legitimizing the abdication of countries’ responsibility by outsourcing, and shifting the burden to the Global South,” says Lutz Oette, co-director of the Center for Human Rights Law at SOAS, University of London.

What happens next?

A week after the U.K. unveiled its agreement with Rwanda, Denmark announced that it was in talks with the east African country to strike a similar deal. Then, on Jun. 3, the Danish parliament passed a law to allow the relocation of asylum seekers arriving in the country to nations outside the E.U. while their claims are being heard.

Campaigners also worry that, if more countries like Denmark follow the U.K.’s example, it could undermine the principle of asylum seeking on a global scale. “This is ripping the protections established after the Second World War apart and fundamentally undermining the idea of global responsibility sharing,” says Ahmed.

And despite the ethical concerns, high costs, and wave of legal challenges that the U.K. government may face under the Rwanda program, experts tell TIME that lawmakers appear committed to pursue the removal of asylum seekers from the country—if only to appear tough on migration. “It’s quite clear that even if one person ends up getting on the plane, they want that plane to go,” says Hossain. “They want it to be a point of principle, to let people know that they are actually going ahead with this, which is terrifying for refugees seeking safety in the U.K.”

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