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Home Office Was Blindsided By European Court of Human Rights Move To Ground Rwanda Flight

The plane due to set off for Rwanda last night was grounded after a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights (Alamy)

4 min read

The Home Office is facing uncertainty over whether future one-way flights to Rwanda to remove migrants who have arrived illegally in the UK will be able to go ahead after the European Court of Human Rights grounded a plane due to take off on Tuesday.

A Whitehall source told PoliticsHome that the Home Office was blindsided by the ruling in Strasbourg, having already won the right at the UK’s highest three courts to enact the contentious policy.

Under new Home Office plans, male adult asylum seekers arriving illegally in the UK are forcibly relocated to Rwanda. The policy has been met with fierce resistance from opposition parties and human rights campaigners. 

Tuesday’s flight was scheduled to take off from a military airport in Wiltshire at 10.30pm, at a cost of around £500,000 before being blocked at the last minute by the ECHR.

Officials in the Home Office are already preparing to send another plane to Rwanda in the coming weeks, but are currently unclear over whether future flights will be subject to further rulings.

The full surprise judgment from the ECHR, which prevented the UK government from flying the last few remaining migrants due to be removed to the Rwandan capital Kigali, has not been made public. A copy has, however, been sent to the lawyers acting on behalf of migrants and the government, and to the Home Office.

There had originally been 31 people set to take off on the private flight, run by Spanish firm Privilege Style from an RAF base in Wiltshire. The number was eventually reduced to just seven after individuals lodged successful legal claims challenging their removal from the UK.

The Whitehall source said the government is seeking further information as to the grounds on which the injunction was granted by the ECHR, adding that there was surprise the Strasbourg court had become involved before the flight took off.

They also expressed dismay that because the judgment has not been published, the court has not yet made public which of the 47 judges who make up the court heard the case.

There is one from each member state signed up to the ECHR, including Russia, despite the country being kicked out of the European Council over its illegal invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.

The Russian judge, Mikhail Lobov, was suspended in March but has since been reinstated, and until Moscow formally ceases to be a party to the convention in September, Lobov is entitled to hear cases, meaning he may have been the one to grant the Rwanda flight injunction.

Tuesday's ECHR ruling on the Rwanda flight came after the government had won three of legal challenges in the UK, after the Supreme Court yesterday backed up the decisions of the Court of Appeal and the High Court that Home Secretary Priti Patel was legally entitled to enact the policy.

“Then one out-of-hours judge overrules days and days of court hearings at a stroke,” the Whitehall source added.

In his reasons for enabling the government to go ahead with the flight, Lord Robert John Reed, President of the Supreme Court, emphasised that the UK-Rwanda deal on relocating asylum claimants contains a provision making clear that if a judicial review into the policy found it to be unlawful then those who had already left for Kigali would be brought back to the UK.

This meant that the government should be able to begin the process of transporting people to Rwanda while the judicial review launched by charities and campaigners is ongoing.

A verdict on the judicial review is expected by the end of next month, with the Home Office said to be confident of victory. But the issue they face, according to a Home Office insider, is whether the ECHR will be guided by the result of the judicial review in any future applications by migrants earmarked for relocation.

They also believe that those bringing the review could seek to drag it out, on the understanding that without a verdict the European court will continue to be a barrier to flights leaving the UK.

Home Office lawyers are trying to establish whether Tuesday's ECHR ruling was a blanket “temporary injunction” that could be applied to future flights or if removals would be treated on a case-by-case basis by Strasbourg.

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Patel confirmed that “preparations for our future flights and the next flights have already begun”.

A source close to those working on the flight told PoliticsHome that private contractors were used to facilitate last night’s aborted operation, with regular Home Office staff who deal with border issues and deportation flights left unaware where the flight was leaving from or how many people were due to be on board.

The details of the flight were kept a secret from regular border agents they said, with an outsourcing firm being directed by senior Home Office officials in recent days.

Having been due to leave from Stansted, the Boeing 767 plane instead landed at RAF Boscombe Down to allow for further discretion.

The department denied that Home Office staff had been moved off the project in favour of private contractors, saying it was normal procedure to use outside staff in sensitive operations such as this.

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