LONDON (AP) — With the first plane set to take off Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson emphatically defended Britain’s plan to send asylum-seekers of various nationalities to Rwanda, despite an outcry from the United Nations, human rights activists and religious leaders.
“We are going to get on and deliver” the plan, Johnson declared, arguing that the move is a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart the criminal gangs that smuggle migrants across the English Channel in small boats.
The prime minister announced an agreement with Rwanda in April in which people who enter Britain illegally will be deported to the East African country. In exchange for accepting them, Rwanda will receive millions of pounds (dollars) in development aid. The deportees will be allowed to apply for asylum in Rwanda, not Britain.
Johnson’s government this week beat back 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 don’t want to live in. Britain in recent years has seen an illegal influx of migrants from such places as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen.
Activists have denounced the policy as an attack on the rights of refugees that most countries have recognized since the end of World War II.
The U.N. refugee agency, Church of England bishops and, according to British news reports, Prince Charles are among those condemning the plan amid concern other countries will follow suit as war, repression and natural disasters force a growing number of people from 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.
“At a global level, this unapologetically punitive deal further condones the evisceration 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 scheduled to leave Britain late Tuesday, though it was unclear how many people would be on board. British media reported that individual appeals had whittled down the number of potential deportees to seven from more than 31 on Friday.
Man millions of people around the globe have been displaced over the past two decades, putting the international consensus on refugees under strain. The world had more than 26 million refugees in the middle of last year, more that double the number two decades ago, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Millions more have left their homes voluntarily, seeking economic opportunities in developed nations.
In Britain, those pressures have led to a surge in the number of people crossing the English Channel in leaky inflatable boats, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Last November, 27 people died when their boat sank in the waters between France and England.
Johnson, fighting for his political life amid concerns about his leadership and ethics, responded by promising to stop such risky journeys.
While Rwanda was the site of a genocide that killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1994, the country has built a reputation for stability and economic progress since then, the British government argues. Critics say that stability comes at the cost of political repression.
Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, attacked the policy as “all wrong.”
If the British government is truly interested in protecting lives, it should work with other countries to target the smugglers and provide safe routes for asylum-seekers, not simply shunt migrants to other countries, Grandi said.
“The precedent that this creates is catastrophic for a concept that needs to be shared, like asylum,” Grandi said Monday.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and 24 other bishops from the Church of England joined the chorus of voices asking the government to reconsider an “immoral policy that shames Britain.”
“Our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum-seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries,” the bishops wrote in a letter to the Times of London.
Britain’s Supreme Court refused to hear one last-ditch appeal Tuesday, a day after two lower courts refused to block the deportations. Legal challenges continued, however, as lawyers filed case-by-case appeals on behalf of individual migrants.
Many migrants favor Britain as a destination for reasons of language or family ties, or because it is seen as an open economy with more opportunities than other European nations.
When Britain was a member of the European Union, it was part of a system that required refugees to seek asylum in the first safe country they entered. Those who reached Britain could be sent back to the EU countries they traveled from. Britain lost that option when it withdrew from the EU two years ago.
Since then, the British and French governments have worked to stop the journeys, with a great deal of bickering and not much success. More than 28,000 migrants entered Britain in small boats last year, up from 8,500 in 2020.
Nando Sigona, a migration expert at the University of Birmingham, said large principles are at stake if the Rwanda policy stands.
“How can we establish any kind of moral high ground where we intervene in other countries if we are not signatory to providing protection to those fleeing war and persecution?’’ Sigona asked.