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What happens next after first Rwanda deportation flight grounded?

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The government’s inaugural deportation flight transferring UK asylum applicants to Rwanda at a cost of £500,000 to the taxpayer was grounded late on Tuesday evening following a last-minute intervention from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The decision left a deeply unpopular Home Office policy up in the air while the planes intended to carry it out stood idle on the runway at MOD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

Both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal had rejected efforts from immigrant rights campaigners to stop the plane earlier this week before the ECHR stepped in to overrule their verdicts.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the refugees had mounted frantic case-by-case appeals on behalf of their clients, desperate to avoid being flown to the central African nation for processing. This led to the passenger list being drastically cut down from 31 to just four before takeoff was finally cancelled outright.

The strategy of outsourcing asylum claims to Rwanda, a country with a highly questionable human rights record, has been met with a storm of criticism since it was first announced in April. Prince Charles reportedly branded it “appalling”, while protesters have demonstrated outside a detention centre in Crawley and in Westminster.

More than two dozen Church of England bishops, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, wrote an open letter to The Times over the weekend calling it an “immoral policy that shames Britain.”

But a defiant home secretary Priti Patel insisted that Tuesday’s legal defeats would not deter her office from “doing the right thing”.

“Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now,” she said.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey reiterated that message on Wednesday in an interview with Sky News, saying the government is already working on organising the next flight and “highly confident” it can challenge the ECHR, setting the stage for a fresh legal battle.

However, she declined to give a timeframe as to when a second flight might take place.

Yolande Makolo, a spokesperson for the Rwandan government, said that, for its part, her country “remains fully committed to making this partnership work”.

“Rwanda stands ready to receive the migrants when they do arrive and offer them safety and opportunity in our country,” she said.

As outraged Tory MP Greg Smith leads calls for Britain to sever its ties to the ECHR in the wake of the intervention – a step shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has already warned would have “grave” consequences – the future of the Rwanda policy hangs in limbo.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Wednesday, human rights lawyer Frances Swaine, who represents one of the prospective passengers to Kigali, called on the government to wait until a judicial review can be held before chartering a new plane.

“The European Court of Human Rights has recommended that there are no other flight proposals put together until the substantial judicial review hearing into the whole policy is heard,” she said.

“We’re expecting that that would take place in about six weeks time during July although we don’t have a firm date for it yet.

“And I think if I was the government, which obviously I’m not, but if I was, I would be sitting back and thinking was it worth it, either from a financial or a legal perspective, to organise one of these very expensive flights again when they’ve been so unsuccessful this time around on legal grounds.

“Because there will be a decision in July as to whether or not this policy can be extant, or whether there would need to be some changes to the law if the government was absolutely determined to see it through.

“But wait until we have the decision first and then decide whether to go ahead.”

However, Ms Patel is likely to be eager to press ahead and get her policy back on track following Tuesday’s resounding humiliation, especially as the problem of illegal immigation via the English Channel remains acute.

On Tuesday, the UK saw a two-month high of 444 people attempting to reach British shores from the coast of northern France, with 11 small boats picked up containing approximately 40 refugees each.

Last year, more than 28,000 people made the dangerous journey across the Channel in unsafe vessels, many with the support of human traffickers, a figure more than three times the total seen in 2020, hence the government’s hasty search for a ready answer to the problem.

A frustrated Boris Johnson went so far as to accuse the lawyers challenging the Rwanda policy of “abetting the work of criminal gangs” during a Cabinet meeting earlier this week, insisting that his government would not be deterred despite the opposition it had encountered, “not least from lawyers”.

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