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The failed Rwanda deportation flight was a rare victory for refugees

The first deportation flight was cancelled after a last-minute court judgement, but we will have to continue to fight the government’s unlawful neocolonial tactics.

21 Jun 2022

On 14 June four men were forced onto a plane in tears, some in shackles, waiting to be sent 4,000 miles from the UK – the place they were seeking refuge – into a dangerous and uncertain future. 

Quite literally at the last minute, after weeks of legal and direct actions, the deportation flight was stopped. This planned flight to Rwanda would have forcibly removed vulnerable people seeking asylum.  

Detention Action and our legal team, along with Care4Calais and Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), had worked tirelessly in the UK courts to challenge the flights, but our appeals were refused. It was the European Court of Human Rights that finally issued 11th-hour injunctions to stop the deportation of migrants aboard.

Home secretary Priti Patel will now have to answer why she is trying to shirk her responsibilities to protect survivors of torture and modern slavery, and people fleeing persecution and active war zones.

For months we’ve heard Patel and Boris Johnson threatening people who are seeking asylum with forced removal to a “safe third country”. They shopped around unsuccessfully for an international partner, finding only refusals, including very public and disdainful rejections from Ghana and Albania – with the Albanian prime minister Edi Rama stating they will “never receive refugees for richer countries”.

Yet this government continued with their imperial preying and neo-colonial tactics by promising that the policy would come with economic growth and prosperity. Eventually, the home secretary managed to secure an ‘economic deal’ with Rwanda.  

“The UK-Rwanda agreement is nothing but a guardhouse for holding politically inconvenient people seeking asylum”

Whilst Rwanda is a fast-growing economy, this deal is a shining example of both governments’ focus on PR and political point scoring. Priti Patel touts the false prophecy of protecting asylum seekers from people traffickers by forcibly sending them thousands of miles away. The Rwandan government seeks self-promotion by offering humanity in exchange for money. This seemingly forms part of a larger campaign to cover evidence of their violent restrictions on freedom of speech and independent media, their use of arbitrary detention and torture, including of LGBTQI+ people, and their use of government spying networks and even suspected assassinations of opponents abroad. 

The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, claims the deal with Priti Patel – which came with an initial payout of £120 million – is not a deal to trade human beings for money. It is hard to avoid comparison to the colonial past in the exploitation of African countries and the trade and transportation of people to distant countries for financial gains. The so-called UK-Rwanda Asylum Agreement is nothing but a guardhouse for holding politically inconvenient people seeking asylum. The UNHCR has even intervened in our legal challenge, presenting evidence that Rwanda’s asylum system is not fit for purpose and features various systemic failings that would risk returning people to danger in the countries they have fled.

We are now 10 years into the hostile environment that has forced medical professionals, landlords, employers and educators to become hostile border enforcers, making them obligated to report to the authorities their patients, tenants, employees and students’ immigration status. These are the same hostile policies that wrongly removed British citizens who have clear Windrush links in rebuilding post-war Britain. Rather than being consigned to history, the hostile environment has instead been rebranded under the less obviously hostile slogan of “fixing a failing asylum system”. 

While the government promotes an environment of deterrence and dehumanisation, we refuse to allow them the power to wield unlawful and dangerous anti-immigration policies. What we are arguing is simple: there is no proof that this policy protects the people this government wants to remove. It is not lawful for the UK to abandon our responsibility to provide refuge to those escaping conflict, persecution, torture and slavery. 

“The ECHR rarely intervenes and only does so when it is clear that people’s basic human rights are at serious risk”

After our initial request that the courts halt any Rwanda removal, the Home Office was forced to cancel the one-way tickets to Rwanda that they had issued. Over 100 people were issued with tickets or letters of intent, and with hours before the flight was due to depart, only seven people remained. Following a direct appeal from one Iraqi man seeking asylum, represented by Duncan Lewis Solicitors, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stepped in and ruled to stop him from being forced to fly to Rwanda, at least until after Detention Action’s legal challenge is heard in July.

The ECHR ruling was exceptional. That court rarely intervenes and only does so when it is clear that people’s basic human rights are at serious risk. The ECHR ruling has ignited this government’s past commitment to withdraw from this protected institution to fit their anti-immigration manifesto. These institutions are safeguards in protecting our rights and holding to account anyone who attempts to breach them, including the government. The ECHR is a fundamental British institution that has intervened to protect fundamental rights in the UK, as in the case of Dudgeon v UK (1981), which led to decriminalising homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

Last week we secured a rare victory for refugees. This government will now have to wait until our substantive case hearing in July when the legality of the policy will be tested. The injunction given in court effectively prevents the government from arranging any further flights to Rwanda, unless they are happy to chance another empty flight on the tarmac. 

The ECHR ruling has set the grounds for any further flights to be easily cancelled if planned before our case is heard in July. Any appeals brought by the government on the ECHR ruling may only prolong the Home Secretary’s plans for quick removals to Rwanda.

Those who were at risk of removal to Rwanda are still detained and are now challenging their indefinite detainment with threats of over monitoring and electronic tagging when released. We’ll continue to provide our vital support to people in detention, as well as fighting for their rights in the courts and through our communities. 

Maria Brul is campaigns and advocacy coordinator at Detention Action. You can support Detention Action’s legal fund here

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