Human rights group begins legal action over UK's Rwanda migrant policy

View of Heathrow IRC sign in Middlesex as UK prepares for Rwanda deportations

By Michael Holden and Sam Tobin

LONDON (Reuters) -Human rights group Asylum Aid said on Friday it had launched a legal challenge against the British government's policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak aims to launch within weeks.

Parliament passed a law last month to pave the way for Britain to send asylum seekers who arrive without permission to Rwanda, which Sunak says will deter migrants from making the dangerous journey to Britain in small boats.

The new law, which says the UK parliament has declared Rwanda a safe country, was designed to override a ruling last year by the UK Supreme Court that the scheme was unlawful.

But Asylum Aid said a document published by the government this week telling case workers they must now consider Rwanda safe was inconsistent with wording in the new law that allows asylum seekers the right of appeal in limited circumstances.

"We have brought forward this legal action to ensure that the Home Office properly considers any individual cases against removal to Rwanda, including on the grounds that they would be returned from Rwanda to the place they fled," said Alison Pickup, executive director of Asylum Aid.

Sunak, who has made the scheme one of his key policies, is hoping that the first flights will leave in the next 10 to 12 weeks. He says the plan will smash the business model of people-smugglers who have brought tens of thousands of asylum seekers across the Channel in small boats.

His opponents call the plan, which has already cost the government hundreds of millions of pounds, a costly gimmick.

This week the government said it had started to detain migrants in preparation for them to be sent to Rwanda.

"There is a lack of information on when flights to Rwanda will take off and who will be on them, but the government has made clear that it is determined to act quickly as we have already seen the Home Office carrying out forcible detentions," Pickup said.

Asylum Aid is not the first to start legal action over the new law, with the FDA trade union also launching action saying its civil servant members were potentially being asked to breach international law. A judge ordered on Friday that this case be heard in the first week of June.

Despite the new law and the threat of being sent to Rwanda, migrants have continued to make the dangerous cross-Channel trip from France. More than 7,500 have arrived this year, with 711 detected on Wednesday alone, the most in a single day so far this year.

(Reporting by Michael Holden, Sarah Young and Sam Tobin; Editing by Sachin Ravikumar and Peter Graff)