The UK government on Tuesday insisted it would go ahead with its controversial policy to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, even as last-minute legal appeals meant there was a chance the first such flight might not take off.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted the Kigali-bound plane, believed to be operated by Spanish charter firm Privilege Style, would leave, no matter how many people were on board.
Only six people are now due to be deported because of legal challenges and reviews of cases — well down on the 130 initially envisaged by the authorities.
“We’re expecting to send the flight later today,” Truss told Sky News but said she was unable to confirm the numbers due to be on board.
“There will be people on the flights and if they’re not on this flight, they will be on the next flight,” she added.
The European Court of Human Rights issued an urgent interim measure to prevent the deportation of an Iraqi man booked on the flight as he may have been tortured and his asylum application was not completed.
“This means it is now possible for the other six to make similar claims. We are so relieved,” refugee rights group Care4Calais tweeted.
The Strasbourg-based court said the expulsion should wait until British courts have taken a final decision on the legality of the policy, set for July.
Truss said the policy, which the UN refugee agency has criticized as “all wrong”, was vital to break up human-trafficking gangs exploiting vulnerable migrants.
Record numbers of migrants have made the perilous Channel crossing from northern France, heaping pressure on the government in London to act after it promised to tighten borders after Brexit.
British media said some 260 people attempting the crossing in small boats were brought ashore at the Channel port of Dover by 1200 GMT on Tuesday.
More than 10,000 have crossed since the start of the year.
Legal challenges in recent days have failed to stop the deportation policy, which the two top clerics in the Church of England and 23 bishops said was “immoral” and “shames Britain”.
“They (migrants) are the vulnerable that the Old Testament calls us to value,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell wrote in a letter to The Times.
“We cannot offer asylum to everyone, but we must not outsource our ethical responsibilities, or discard international law — which protects the right to claim asylum.”
It was reported last weekend that Queen Elizabeth II‘s heir, Prince Charles, had privately described the government’s plan as “appalling”.
But Truss said: “The people who are immoral in this case are the people traffickers trading on human misery.”
In Kigali, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo told reporters it was an “innovative program” to tackle “a broken global asylum system”.
“We don’t think it is immoral to offer a home to people,” she told a news conference.
An undeterred Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile told his senior ministers the policy was “the right thing to do”.
‘Value for money’
Truss said she could not put a figure on the cost of the charter flight, which has been estimated at upwards of £250,000 ($303,000).
But she insisted it was “value for money” to reduce the long-term cost of irregular migration, which the government says costs UK taxpayers £1.5 billion a year, including £5 million a day on accommodation.
In the Channel port of Calais, in northern France, migrants said the risk of deportation to Rwanda would not stop them trying to reach Britain.
Moussa, 21, from the Darfur region of Sudan, said “getting papers” was the attraction. “That’s why we want to go to England,” he said.
Deported asylum seekers who make the 4,000-mile (6,500-kilometer) trip to Kigali will be put up in the Hope Hostel, which was built in 2014 to give refuge to orphans from the 1994 genocide of around 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsis.
Hostel manager Ismael Bakina said up to 100 migrants can be accommodated at a rate of $65 per person a day and that “this is not a prison.”
As part of the agreement, anyone landing in Britain illegally is liable to be given a one-way ticket for processing and resettlement in Rwanda.
The government in Kigali has said the deportations will begin slowly and rejected criticism that Rwanda is not a safe country and that serious human rights abuses were rife.
Rwandan opposition parties also question whether the resettlement scheme will work given high youth unemployment rates.