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Sending asylum-seekers from Britain to Rwanda is human trafficking, an advocate says

Updated June 14, 2022 at 8:07 PM ET

Great Britain's plan to send asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere on a plane to Rwanda constitutes human trafficking, an activist argues.

Nearly a dozen people were scheduled to board a flight Tuesday, but the flight was halted after last-minute injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

Immigrant rights advocates had mounted legal challenges to stop the deportations. Responding to the court, U.K. officials said they would attempt to move forward with more flights. "Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now," said Home Secretary Priti Patel.

More court battles over the policy are expected in the coming weeks.

British officials argue the flights are an effort to reduce the demand and incentives for human traffickers bringing asylum-seekers into the country illegally by boat, which puts refugees' lives at risk.

Karen Doyle, the national organizer for immigrant rights organization Movement for Justice, calls it "obfuscation and lies" to call the deportations a humanitarian move.

"These asylum-seekers, we expect multiple suicide attempts in the coming 24 hours," Doyle told Morning Edition before the injunctions were announced. "Because they're being told they're being sent thousands of miles away to a country that they have no connection to."

Instead, Doyle argues, this is part of an effort by the government to distract from its own ongoing troubles. Those include COVID restriction-busting parties at Prime Minister Boris Johnson's residence, ongoing messiness regarding Brexit rules for Northern Ireland, and an announcement on Tuesday that Scotland would pursue another vote on separating from Great Britain.

"They throw some red meat to their racist base and hope it distracts from their corruption and failures," she said.

And the effort likely will fail, Doyle said: The problems in the refugees' home countries will keep them from returning, and a similar effort by Israel in 2014 resulted in all rerouted asylum-seekers using the same human trafficking networks and either returning to Europe or getting enslaved in Libya.

And Rwanda is a troubling destination, Doyle added, noting that police there recently fired on and killed protesting refugees in 2018. The BBC reports that the country, which has a population of about 13 million, already is home to 150,000 refugees from other African nations.

If it's allowed to move forward, the deportation effort could send a signal to leaders around the world.

"If Britain gets away with it, other countries are going to try as well," Doyle said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.