U.K. set to start deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda

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LONDON — The British government was preparing Tuesday to forcefully send a first group of asylum seekers to Rwanda, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the highly controversial policy hours before the inaugural flight was scheduled to take off.

The government seeks to put all or most adult migrants who arrive illegally on British shores onto planes to fly 4,000 miles away to East Africa, where they could wait while their claims are being assessed or leave if they prefer to return to their home countries.

The government says it hopes this get-tough policy will discourage smugglers from exploiting desperate people who try to cross the English Channel from France in unseaworthy rubber rafts.

More than 10,000 people have entered the Britain via the Channel this year. On calm summer days, hundreds arrive on British beaches. In a single incident in November 2021, at least 27 migrants died while attempting the crossing.

Though the policy has support from Johnson’s Conservative Party, it has prompted several legal challenges, as well as criticism from the archbishop of Canterbury and, reportedly, Prince Charles.

In televised remarks Tuesday at the opening of his cabinet meeting, Johnson said activists and their lawyers who opposed the plan were “abetting criminal gangs.”

“They’re undermining everything that we are doing to provide safe and legal routes for people to come to the U.K. and to oppose the illegal and dangerous routes,” Johnson said.

It was unclear how many people would be on the 200-seat flight Tuesday night. Some activist groups said it could be a largely symbolic seven: 3 Iranians, 1 Syrian, 1 Albanian, 1 Iraqi Kurd and 1 man from Vietnam. Other individuals succeeded in having their deportation orders canceled in recent days.

“I can’t say exactly how many people will be on the flight,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News, “but the really important thing is we establish the principle and we start to break the business model of these appalling people traffickers who are trading in misery.”

She added: “There will be people on the flight, and if they are not on this flight, they will be on the next flight.”

Truss would not confirm claims that the flight would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but insisted that it was “value for money.”

Rwanda, a Commonwealth nation, will receive $160 million in aid as part of the deal.

An attempt to win an 11th-hour injunction to stop the flights was rejected by British courts. Supreme Court Judge Robert Reed ruled Tuesday that if a judicial review of the government policy, scheduled for July, finds the flights are illegal, anyone already sent to Rwanda could be brought back.

Clare Moseley, founder of the pro-migrant group Care4Calais, told The Washington Post that she “was shaken to my core” that British judges would allow the flights to begin.

Moseley said some of those scheduled to fly were victims of torture and that their cases should be decided in Britain. She said the British government has agreed to take in people fleeing Hong Kong and Ukraine — and “so it’s not really about the numbers,” but how they arrive.

In a letter that appeared on the front page of several newspapers, senior bishops — including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the effective leader of the Church of England — charged: “This immoral policy shames Britain.”

Truss disagreed. “The people who are immoral in this case are the people traffickers trading in human misery,” she said. “Our policy is completely legal. It’s completely moral.”

The Times and Daily Mail newspapers also reported that Prince Charles, heir to the throne, said in private that the policy was “appalling.” This raised eyebrows, as senior members of the royal family are expected to be politically neutral.

A spokeswoman for his office, Clarence House, said: “We would not comment on supposed anonymous private conversations with the Prince of Wales, except to restate that he remains politically neutral. Matters of policy are decisions for government.”

Britons are divided on the issue. A YouGov poll this week found that 44 percent support the policy, while 40 percent oppose it. The survey also found a striking difference reflecting political affiliation, with 74 percent of Conservatives supporting the policy and only 19 percent of Labour voters supporting it.

Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, tweeted that the ruling Conservative Party was exploiting the issue. “Suspect they’ve found the ‘culture war’ issue that works,” she wrote.

With 80 million displaced people in the world, many fleeing poverty and violence, Britain is not alone in seeking to make illegal migration harder — and to move the asylum process “offshore.”

Johnson has said that the plan to push asylum seekers to Rwanda is designed to be a deterrent — that migrants hoping to stay in Britain don’t want to be sent to Africa.

The prime minister said that he believes the Rwanda policy will serve a model for other countries to follow, and that he is confident that more will soon do so.

Rwanda has pushed back against accusations that it is being bought off.

Speaking at a Tuesday news conference in Kigali, Yolande Makolo, the official spokesperson for the Rwandan government, told reporters that her country “has a strong record of providing safety for those in danger.”

She said that “the new arrivals will be welcomed and will be looked after and supported to make new lives here.”

Pushing back against the idea that sending migrants to Rwanda was wrong, Makolo said, “We don’t think it’s immoral to offer a home to people.”

Rwanda’s high commissioner to the U.K, Johnston Busingye, promised that the migrants sent from Britain will “be free to come and go as they please and the Rwandan authorities will look after their needs.”

If they want to return to their homeland, or any other country that will accept them, they are free to go, Busingye said.

Denmark has also explored a migration deal with Rwanda. Israel tried persuading illegal migrants from Eritrea and Sudan to accept cash and a one-way ticket to Rwanda in a pilot program.

The European Union is continuing to task the Libyan coast guard with intercepting migrant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.

And in 2019, the Trump administration sent to Guatemala 900 asylum seekers who had crossed the U.S. border. President Biden suspended the program.