British government resolute as it begins deporting 1st asylum seekers to Rwanda

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson beat back criticism of his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda on Tuesday, saying that efforts to block the flights were “abetting the work of criminal gangs” involved in smuggling people across borders.

Britain reached a 120-million-pound ($188 million Cdn) deal with Rwanda to send some migrants, who had arrived illegally by crossing the English Channel in small boats from Europe, to live in the landlocked African country. Rwanda is to receive development aid.

The policy has faced a series of legal challenges, but the U.K. Supreme Court refused to hear one last-ditch appeal Tuesday after lower courts refused to block the deportations.

The first flight is expected later in the day, though perhaps with only a handful of people aboard.

“I think that what the criminal gangs are doing, and what those who effectively are abetting the work of the criminal gangs are doing, is undermining people’s confidence in the safe and legal system, undermining people’s general acceptance of immigration,” Johnson said before a meeting of his cabinet.

The prime minister insisted the government would not be cowed by those attacking the strategy and told cabinet ministers that “we are going to get on and deliver” the plan.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the controversial deportation plan while chairing a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on Tuesday. (Alberto Pezzali/AFP/Getty Images))

The plan has sparked heated protest in the U.K. The leadership of the Church of England has joined the opposition, and newspaper reports say Prince Charles has also waded into the issue. The heir to the throne privately described the Rwanda policy as “appalling,” the Times reported over the weekend, citing an unidentified source.

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, has also lashed out at the policy, describing it as “all wrong.” If the British government is truly interested in protecting lives, it should work with other countries to target the people smugglers and provide safe routes for asylum seekers, not simply shunt migrants to other countries, Grandi said.

Unclear how many will be on 1st flight

While a major precedent is at stake, the number of people immediately affected by the cases has been steadily whittled down as lawyers challenge the merits of each deportation order. British media reported that the number of migrants scheduled to be on a Tuesday night flight is now seven, down from 31 migrants who were told last week that they would be leaving.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said earlier that the first deportation flight to Rwanda would take off Tuesday, regardless of how many people were on board.

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

Reaction from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby:

The comments came as 25 Church of England bishops, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, wrote an open letter describing the deportation plans as an “immoral policy that shames Britain.”

“The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries,” the bishops wrote in the letter to the Times of London.

The view from Rwanda

Rwandan President Paul Kagame told diplomats in Kigali after the agreement with Britain was signed in April that his country and the U.K. aren’t engaged in buying and selling people, but instead trying to solve a global migration problem.

Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and still among the least developed, despite its focus on modernizing since the country’s 1994 genocide. The migrants who sought better lives in Britain are expected to find fewer chances to pursue their dreams here, even as Rwandan officials describe their country as having a proud history of welcoming those in need.

A bedroom is seen inside the Hope Hostel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, one of the locations expected to house some of the asylum seekers due to be sent from Britain. (The Associated Press)

Kagame has ruled for over two decades, earning a reputation as an efficient but autocratic leader. The U.S. State Department in its most recent report on the human rights situation in the country cites “credible reports” of forced detentions and disappearances of citizens, and the stifling of freedom of speech and association.

Sensitivities around the arrival of the first asylum seekers from Britain are so high that Rwandan officials are barring media from interviewing the new arrivals.

“Maybe later, when they have settled,” said Claude Twishime, a spokesman for the Ministry of Emergency Management, which will take charge of their care.

One of those who has found a foothold is Urubel Tesfaye, a 22-year-old from Ethiopia who is happy he found a part-time job in a bakery in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. But his friends speak of moving on to Canada or the Netherlands.

Even those who came straight to Rwanda to escape troubles at home say the country, while peaceful, isn’t easy.

“When you are not employed, you cannot survive here,” said Kelly Nimubona, a refugee from neighbouring Burundi. “We cannot afford to eat twice a day. There is no chance to get a job or do vending on the street.” But he described Rwanda as an oasis of order in a tumultuous region.

Those set to arrive under Rwanda’s new agreement with Britain will be housed in shelters around Kigali with features like private rooms, televisions and a swimming pool. At one, the Hope Hostel, a security guard patrols outside, and clocks in the lobby show the times in London and Paris.

“This is not a prison,” manager Bakinahe Ismail said.