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U.K. Supreme Court to weigh legality of plan to deport migrants to Rwanda

People believed to be migrants walk in Dungeness, a headland on the coast of England, on Aug. 16.
Toby Melville
People believed to be migrants walk in Dungeness, a headland on the coast of England, on Aug. 16.

DOVER, England, and LONDON — They were handcuffed, their phones confiscated, their legs shackled in the van on the way to a military airfield. They were terrified.

One wept. Another fainted, and a doctor had to be summoned. Two prayed aloud in unison.

It was June 2022, and with these seven migrant men — ranging in age from 26 to 54, from Iran, Iraq, Vietnam and Albania — the British government hoped to send a chilling message to anyone crossing the English Channel to enter the United Kingdom without a visa.

They would be deported — not back to the countries from which they'd escaped, but to Rwanda, in central Africa.

The U.K. government had signed a deal paying Rwanda to take them, even though they'd sought asylum in Britain and had never set foot on the continent of Africa.

The June 14, 2022, flight was meant to be the first of what the Conservative-led government said it hoped would be tens of thousands of deportations to Rwanda. The hard-line home minister called it her "dream" and "obsession."

"My legs were trembling. I thought I'd never see my family again," recalls N.A., an Iranian Kurd who was one of the seven forced to board a military transport plane that night at a U.K. air base about 80 miles west of London. He has a sister in England, and in May 2022, he made a dangerous boat crossing from France — without a visa — to join her. He asked NPR to identify him by his initials only, because he's worried media attention could jeopardize his asylum case.

He and the six other men boarded the plane, fastened their seat belts and waited for hours. Their lawyers were working frantically to free them. They'd filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, of which Britain remains a member despite its European Union exit.

The court issued a temporary ban on such flights. One by one, the asylum-seekers were pulled off the plane. Their flight was scrapped — at a cost to British taxpayers of up to $600,000.

"They treated us like criminals and murderers," N.A. told NPR in voice memos recorded in a hotel in Birmingham, where the government has been housing him and fellow migrants awaiting resolution on this policy. "Even now, the memory of that day haunts me. Every knock on the door, I think it's the authorities coming to escort us back to that plane."

Britain remains determined to get Rwanda deportation flights off the ground

Concern about immigration prompted many Britons to back Brexit, which limits Europeans' ability to live and work in the United Kingdom. The same sentiment has fueled one of the ruling Conservatives' signature policies: A law that criminalizes crossing the English Channel by boat without a visa and that says violators will be sent home or, if that's deemed unsafe, then to Rwanda — no matter their country of origin.

The policy was first floated in April 2022 by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and gained momentum under Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister. It passed Parliament last spring and became law in July.

Sunak, who's running for reelection next year with a slogan "Stop the Boats," says the threat of being deported to Rwanda will deter people from paying smugglers to ferry them to the U.K. in the first place.

"This is how we're going to break the cycle of these criminal gangs and take control of our borders," the prime minister said in a video released in June. "People need to know that if they come here illegally, that they will be detained and swiftly removed."

But the United Nations says it amounts to an asylum ban for almost everyone except Ukrainians, for whom Britain has granted and expedited special refugee visas.

Critics call it discriminatory.

"People open their homes and invite refugees in if they are white," says Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a former chaplain to the Parliament and the first Black woman to become a Church of England bishop. She currently serves as bishop of Dover, on England's southeast coast, where many migrants come ashore.

"But if you are brown or belong to a Muslim country, then we're going to simply gather you around and send you off to Rwanda," she says.

On Oct. 9, the U.K.'s Supreme Court is expected to begin deliberations over the legality of this policy. In June, Britain's Court of Appeal called it "unlawful." Last year, the High Court in London said the opposite.

A Supreme Court ruling — which would be the final say from the country's highest judicial authority — is expected in November.

Asylum-seekers aboard a U.K. Border Force boat arrive at docks in Dover, England, after being rescued in the English Channel while crossing it in January.
Andrew Aitchison / In Pictures via Getty Images
In Pictures via Getty Images
Asylum-seekers aboard a U.K. Border Force boat arrive at docks in Dover, England, after being rescued in the English Channel while crossing it in January.

Legal and illegal migration to the U.K. has spiked — despite Brexit

In terms of immigration, the British equivalent of the U.S.-Mexico border is the English Channel. The number of undocumented migrants crossing the channel by boat from France has multiplied many times since 2018. Overall net migration to Britain has also spiked in recent years.

"It gets busier every year. I've been on the sea 25, maybe 30 years — and I've seen nothing like it all my life," fisherman Matt Coker told NPR by phone from his fishing boat off the Dover coast.

On a weekday in August, he narrated to NPR what was happening in the waters right in front of him: A fishing boat repurposed to carry some 50 migrants was making its way across the English Channel, with a French drone hovering over it. A French warship and U.K. Border Force vessel idled nearby, surveilling it.

He sees a handful of boats every day, he said, carrying dozens of migrants. He has even intervened to help rescue them and transfer them to British lifeguards and border forces.

"The most dangerous part is their boats don't show up on radar very well, because [some of them] are inflatable," Coker said.

More than 100,000 migrants have made this journey since 2018. At least six of them drowned while trying to do so in August. According to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project, at least 145 migrants have died or gone missing in the channel since 2018. By contrast, more than 28,000 have done so in the Mediterranean in that period.

"If someone's desperate enough to get in a boat, what can you say? You can't help but feeling empathy for them," says John Heron, who lives in the port city of Dover and often sees migrant boats come ashore on the rocky beach there while he's jogging.

Many Britons support the government's efforts to reduce migration

Britain's government says there are simply too many migrants for the country to accommodate them. There's a backlog of asylum cases. Authorities have repurposed hotels and even a floating barge to house the tens of thousands of migrants arriving annually. They've come during a painful cost-of-living crisis, on top of years of austerity that have left Britons with some of the highest inflation in Europe.

"Some of the local people are now getting weary," says David Slater, a Church of England chaplain for the port of Dover, who goes out on lifeboat rescue missions.

He says he understands why there have been anti-immigrant protests in the area.

"I find myself in a difficult situation where I am, as a Christian, wanting to minister to people in humanitarian disaster," he says. "But equally well, having to minister to local people — for whom fatigue has set in. This has been going on for a long time."

Local residents have become resentful of any meager welfare benefits granted to undocumented migrants, Slater says. They see foreigners as a drain on public funds during the country's worst cost-of-living crisis since World War II.

A poll published in September by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford found that 52% of respondents in Britain think immigration numbers should be reduced and that opposition to immigration may have increased since 2022.

Uncertainty for asylum-seekers stuck in the system

The Kurdish migrant N.A. has a lot hanging on the Supreme Court's upcoming ruling.

"I remain in a state of uncertainty," he told NPR in a voice memo sent from his overcrowded migrant hotel. "My mental and psychological state is fragile."

His lawyer, Qays Sediqi, says his client faced persecution in Iran for being a member of a minority group. He also suffered maltreatment from human traffickers, who took him from Iran to France and then across the water to England, Sediqi says.

N.A.'s sister is a British citizen and lives nearby. So he has family support and wouldn't be a drain on society, the lawyer adds.

But because of the way he came to England — in a boat, without a visa — officials have so far refused to hear his asylum plea. There's a backlog of thousands of cases, and authorities want to throw out those belonging to migrants whom they've labeled as "illegal" — no matter the persecution they may have escaped.

The Rwanda deportation policy, Sediqi says, "just strips every right that an asylum-seeker has in the U.K."

"It's an international right of every human being to claim asylum. It's not illegal," he says. "[But] the U.K. wants to prevent individuals from doing that."

For his part, N.A. says he "fervently hopes" that deportation flights to Rwanda are never allowed to take off and that authorities will one day agree to hear his asylum plea.

"My wish is that this distressing experience remains unique," he says. "No refugee should have to endure what I did."

NPR producer Fatima Al-Kassab contributed to this report from Dover, England, and London.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.