UK says flights to Rwanda will begin within weeks; critics criticize the plan

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A group of people thought to be migrants are brought to Dover, Kent, England, by the RNLI, following a small boating incident in the English Channel, Thursday April 14, 2022. Britain’s Conservative government has concluded a deal with Rwanda to send asylum-seekers thousands of miles to the East African country. Opposition politicians and refugee groups condemn the plan as impractical, inhumane and a waste of public money. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)

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The UK government said on Friday it plans to start putting asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda within weeks as it pushes for a deal that has outraged refugee groups and organizations humanitarians.

Britain and Rwanda announced on Thursday they have reached a deal that will see some people arrive in the UK as stowaways on trucks or in small boats sent 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometres) to the East African country, where their asylum applications will be processed and, if successful, they will stay.

The UK government says the plan will discourage people from making dangerous attempts to cross the Channel and bankrupt smuggling gangs.

But critics of the Conservative government have said legal and political hurdles mean the flights may never happen. They accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of using headline politics to distract from his political issues. Johnson is resisting calls to step down after he was fined by police this week for attending a party at his office in 2020 that broke coronavirus lockdown rules.

Conservative lawmaker Andrew Griffith, a senior adviser to Johnson, said flights to Rwanda could begin “in weeks or a small number of months”.

Migration Minister Tom Pursglove said the drastic plan was needed to deter people trying to reach Britain in dinghies and other boats from northern France. More than 28,000 migrants entered the UK across the Channel last year, up from 8,500 in 2020. Dozens died, including 27 people in November when a single boat capsized.

“No one should come in a small boat to come to the UK,” Pursglove told Sky News. “We rightly have a rich and proud history in this country which has provided refuge to thousands of people over the years. …. But what we can’t have, and we can’t accept, is people putting their lives in the hands of these evil criminal gangs, and that’s why we think it’s important that we take these measures.

The deal – for which the UK paid Rwanda 120 million pounds ($158 million) up front – leaves many questions unanswered, including its final cost and how participants will be chosen. The UK says children and families with children will not be sent to Rwanda.

Refugee and human rights groups called the plan inhumane, unenforceable and a waste of taxpayers’ money. The UN Refugee Agency has urged Britain and Rwanda to reconsider their position.

“Such arrangements only shift asylum responsibilities, evade international obligations and are contrary to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention,” said Gillian Triggs, Deputy High Commissioner for agency protection. “People fleeing war, conflict and persecution deserve compassion and empathy. They should not be traded like commodities and transferred abroad for processing.

Previous programs aimed at “offshoring” asylum seekers have been highly controversial.

In 2013, Australia began sending asylum seekers trying to reach the country by boat to Papua New Guinea and the small atoll of Nauru, swearing that none would be allowed to settle in Australia . The policy has virtually ended the ocean route of people smuggling from Southeast Asia, but has been widely criticized as a cruel abrogation of Australia’s international obligations.

Critics of the UK-Rwanda plan say it is certain to face legal challenges. The prime minister acknowledged on Thursday that he would likely be challenged in court by what he called “politically motivated lawyers” to “frustrate the government”.

The Law Society of England and Wales, which represents lawyers, chastised the government for offering “misleading suggestions that legal challenges are politically motivated”.

“Legal challenges establish whether the government follows its own laws,” said company president I. Stephanie Boyce. “If the government wishes to avoid losing lawsuits, it must act within the law of the land.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of migration issues at https://apnews.com/hub/migration


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Edward L. Robinett