by Danica Kirka | The Associated Press
LONDON – With the first plane taking off on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson strongly defended Britain’s plan to send asylum seekers of various nationalities to Rwanda, despite outcry from the United Nations, human rights activists and religious leaders.
“We are going to go ahead and deliver”, Johnson declared, arguing that the move was a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart criminal gangs smuggling migrants across the English Channel in small boats. .
The prime minister announced an agreement with Rwanda in April to deport people who entered the UK illegally to the East African country. In return for accepting them, Rwanda will receive millions of pounds (dollars) in development aid. Deportees will not be allowed to apply for asylum in the UK but in Rwanda.
Johnson’s government this week overcame a series of legal challenges seeking to block the first deportation flight.
Opponents have argued that it is illegal and inhumane to send people thousands of miles to a country they do not want to live in. In recent years the UK has seen an illegal influx of migrants from places such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan. Iraq and Yemen.
Activists have condemned the policy as an attack on the rights of refugees that most countries have recognized since the end of World War II.
The UN refugee agency, the bishops of the Church of England and, according to British news reports, Prince Charles are among those condemning the plan, amid concerns other countries would follow suit due to war, repression and natural disasters, which would lead to the loss of lives of people. An increasing number will move out of their homes.
Politicians in Denmark and Austria are considering similar proposals. Australia has operated an asylum-processing center in the Pacific island nation of Nauru since 2012.
“Globally, this unapologetically punitive deal condemns the termination of the right to seek asylum in wealthy countries,” said Maurizio Albahari, a migration expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The first deportation flight was due to leave Britain late Tuesday, although it was not clear how many people would be on board. British media reported that individual appeals had reduced the number of possible deportations to seven from 31 on Friday.
Millions of people have been displaced around the world over the past two decades, putting pressure on the international consensus on refugees. According to the United Nations refugee agency, there were more than 26 million refugees in the world at the middle of last year, more than double the number two decades ago. Millions of people have voluntarily left their homes in search of economic opportunities in developed countries.
In Britain, those pressures have led to an increase in the number of people crossing the English Channel in leaky inflatable boats, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Last November, 27 people were killed when their boat sank in the waters between France and England.
Johnson, fighting for his political career amid concerns about his leadership and ethics, responded by promising to stop such risky trips.
While Rwanda was the site of a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands in 1994, the country has since built a reputation for stability and economic progress, the British government argues. Critics say that stability comes at the cost of political repression.
Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, attacked the policy as “all wrong”.
If the British government is really interested in protecting lives, it should work with other countries to target smugglers and provide safe passage for asylum seekers, not just drive migrants to other countries, Grandi said.
“The precedent it sets is disastrous for a concept that needs to be shared, such as an asylum,” Grandi said Monday.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and 24 other bishops of the Church of England called on the government to reconsider the “immoral policy that shames Britain”.
“Our Christian heritage inspires us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries,” the bishops said in a letter to the Times of London.
Britain’s Supreme Court declined to hear a last-ditch appeal on Tuesday, a day after two lower courts refused to halt the deportation. Legal challenges continued, however, as lawyers filed case-by-case appeals on behalf of individual migrants.
Many expatriates prefer the UK as a destination because of language or family ties, or because it is seen as an open economy with more opportunities than other European countries.
When Britain was a member of the European Union, it was part of a system that required refugees to seek refuge in their previously safe country. Those who arrived in the UK could be deported to the EU countries from which they traveled. Britain lost that option after leaving the European Union two years ago.
Since then, the British and French governments have worked to halt travel, with much bickering and not much success. More than 28,000 migrants entered the UK in small boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020.
Nando Sigona, a migration expert at the University of Birmingham, said big principles are at stake if the Rwandan policy is in place.
“If we are not signatories to provide protection to those fleeing war and persecution, how can we establish any sort of moral high ground to intervene in other countries?” Sigona asked.