Why a plane to Rwanda won’t be taking off any time soon

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Legal challenges meant the first Rwanda flight was cancelled shortly before take-off in June 2022

By Dominic Casciani

Home and legal correspondent


The government’s Rwanda bill – to send UK asylum seekers to be processed in Africa – has finally been approved by Parliament, after two years of legal battles and political wrangling. So how soon is a plane bound for Kigali likely to take off?

Let’s just say the engines on the government’s planes will be staying silent tomorrow.

While the bill has now passed through Parliament, the quickest a flight can take off is – technically speaking – 12 days after the King has given royal assent, which then formally turns the bill into law.

In practice, the date of the first flight is likely to be later than that – according to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in 10 to 12 weeks, meaning late June or early July.

“That is later than we wanted,” Mr Sunak said on Monday, admitting the government would miss its own Spring deadline for a flight, “but we have always been clear that processing will take time.”

52,000 people

The only people who could be sent to Rwanda are asylum seekers – people who have sought the UK’s protection and who have arrived without authorisation from another safe country.

That essentially means people who have taken a dinghy to cross the English Channel. It’s worth stressing that this is before the government has decided whether they are genuine refugees or not – the plan is to have the legal claim for protection dealt with in Rwanda.

There are 52,000 people in this pool.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says flights could leave in 10-12 weeks

They are currently in Home Office-funded accommodation and are not allowed to get a job – having not yet had their case heard to be either removed from the UK, or get protection and a new life away from their homeland.

And the government is unlikely to put them all on a plane any time soon. It would take more than three years to remove them all, even if the Home Office hits a high of 15,000 forced deportations a year, which was last seen in 2012.

That number collapsed after departmental cuts and Brexit – although it has now reached 5,000 a year again.

The quickest someone could go from being picked up in the English Channel to Rwanda’s tropical heat is around two weeks.

Once officials select a migrant who fits the government’s criteria, they are given at least seven days’ notice that they might be put on a flight. After that, officials can tell them they will be on a plane five days later.

Migrants will appeal.

That 7+5 notice period (it’s a week longer if someone is not being held in an immigration removal centre) means a targeted individual can take advice on whether they want to challenge their transportation to Rwanda.

If officials dismiss their pleas, then a migrant can try to go to the courts.

Once there, a potential passenger would ask a judge to temporarily block their removal to Rwanda by seeking a court injunction. An injunction would give them time to prepare their case. If several migrants get an injunction at the same the time, it could lead to whole flights being grounded.

Legal challenges

In June 2022, the battle to put the brakes on the first flight went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The first flight to Rwanda was cancelled minutes before take-off following a ruling by the court.

The ECHR told ministers the plane could not leave until British judges had been given the opportunity to properly examine the arguments being made against the Rwanda plan. And the UK’s Supreme Court later ruled unanimously that the Rwanda scheme was unlawful.

Migrants will face a really tough challenge in the courts because the new Rwanda legislation tells judges to ignore a range of human rights safeguards baked into the UK’s complicated constitution.

So expect to see specialist expert refugee organisations also knocking on the doors of the courts and launching a wider challenge to the plan.

There is also speculation that unions involved in the immigration system and civil service could join the fight if they conclude an order to ignore human rights laws in preparing to send migrants is, itself, unlawful.

Finally, we might even see a case launched to look at the plan’s most controversial legal element. The new law orders the courts to treat Rwanda as a safe country – even though the Supreme Court said it is not presently.

Expect legal equivalent of fireworks there because that raises the question of government tying the hands of the independent judiciary.

And then the battle could quickly go to Europe. The law is designed very clearly to exclude the British courts from stopping flights in all but the most exceptional circumstances.

If the UK’s top judges don’t intervene to temporarily stop flights, then migrants will go to the ECHR.

They will want to argue that the law has breached international safeguards that prevent people from being harmed. Strasbourg will only intervene if there is a risk to a migrant of irreparable harm.

If the ECHR orders the flight to stay on the runway, ministers have created a new power to ignore that injunction.

The government says it can ignore the ECHR’s “interim measures” – but most lawyers disagree and say that would be a breach of international law.

What’s the practical effect though?

Last year, France ignored an ECHR provisional order not to deport a man to Uzbekistan. The result was that the highest court in Paris ordered the government to bring the man back again – much to the embarrassment of ministers and officials.

And there could be another sting in the tail.

If the first flight takes off without any court intervention, it does not stop there.

In the worst case scenario for ministers, judges could later rule that a deported migrant had a genuine case – and order the government to return them to the UK.

This has happened before, albeit rarely – and is unlikely to happen before a general election.

27 March12 hours ago


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