On Tuesday night, something incredible happened. A flight that was intended to leave a UK runway at 10:30 p.m., to take the asylum seekers on board almost 9,000km away to Rwanda, was cancelled — and we have the power of action, advocacy, and the people to thank. 

At the end of a day of huge uncertainty as lawyers, activists, and Global Citizens made last-minute attempts to keep the plane grounded, a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) saved the day — effectively meaning the asylum seekers weren’t deported to Rwanda as planned, and the aircraft (chartered at a cost of £500,000) didn’t take off. 

Set up in 1959, the ECtHR is an international court that rules on violations of the civil and political rights set out in the European Convention on Human Rights across Council of Europe member states. Individuals can take complaints of human rights violations to the court once all possibilities of appeal have been exhausted in the member state. In a nutshell, it’s the big cheese of human rights courts and it has more authority than the High Court in the UK. 

The ECtHR ruled in the case of an Iraqi asylum seeker who was due to be on the flight that he could not be sent to Rwanda until a full decision on the legality of the government’s policy had been reached.

You might be thinking? “I thought Brexit meant we’d opted out of all that?” The ECtHR (despite having the word “European” in its name) is not a European Union institution and so Brexit has not affected the UK’s relationship with it.

The decision to stop the flight came at the 11th hour of a day of uncertainty for the small group of refugees that were intended to be deported to the East African country. The original number of people set to be deported had been much higher but a series of appeals and legal challenges had whittled the number down to single digits. 

Among those spared from deportation were three child migrants wrongly assessed as adults, a police commander from Iran who was forced to flee his country after refusing a government order to shoot protesters, and torture and trafficking victims

In the words of Care4Calais’ founder, Clare Moseley: “Last night’s news was a lifesaving reprieve for those seven men and their families. [...] We must remember that every single refugee is a victim of the worst things on this planet. They need our help and our compassion as human beings.”

Indeed, the “inhumane” Rwanda deportation plan was matched by the compassion of people around the country and the world. In a show of extraordinary solidarity, citizens came out in their droves to protest, take action, and send a clear message: we will not allow this. 

Outside Heathrow, activists from the Stop Deportations group, locked themselves together with metal pipes and lay down on exit roads of the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre, in an effort to stop vehicles carrying the first group of people being deported to Rwanda. 

Outside the immigration centre at Gatwick airport, people brandished signs that read “Stop deportation!” and “If fleeing danger is illegal, then the law is wrong.” Further north, in Manchester, hundreds gathered to oppose the deportation plan. 

Meanwhile, Global Citizens were taking action online via our website and app, flooding the inboxes of the airlines charting the flights with thousands of emails, and joining a Twitterstorm urging them not to be complicit in the government’s plans.  

One person even went so far as to turn up at the airline’s HQ. Kolbassia Haoussou MBE, who came to the UK as a refugee, went down to Privilege Style’s central offices to tell them not to let the plane take off.

Green New Deal Rising, a movement of young people calling for climate justice of which 2020 Global Citizen Prize UK Winner Fatima Ibrahim is the director, disrupted an online Q&A with Home Secretary Priti Patel to demand that she scrap the scheme.

But the fight for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK is far from over. A review of Patel’s policy, which intends to send people on a one-way trip to Rwanda, is expected in July. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that the UK could pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights to force through its Rwanda deportations plan. 

The five-year Rwanda plan, which is part of the Nationality and Borders act is expected to cost an initial £120 million and is aimed at single asylum seekers who arrive through "illegal, dangerous, or unnecessary methods," such as on small boats or lorries. Another way of looking at it, as some have pointed out, is that the UK is selling its refugees — which, if you turn up the light, looks a lot like “human trafficking,” according to one advocate.

While the Home Office has made assurances that Rwanda is a “safe and stable” country, campaigners and human rights organisations aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet. The UNHCR has raised concerns about the treatment of and discriminatory access for LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers in Rwanda, while further concerns were raised by campaigners over the migration plan’s failure to safeguard refugees’ medical care.

Human Rights Watch notes that Rwanda’s ruling party “continues to target those perceived as a threat to the government,” and that “arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace.” Just last year, they published a report that revealed Rwandan authorities had threatened, arrested, or prosecuted at least eight people. Their crime? Commenting on current affairs YouTube videos. 

The last few days have shown the sheer force and power of advocacy and action. But the work isn’t done. Join the Global Citizens around the world who helped keep the flight to Rwanda on the runway by taking action here on our website, or by downloading the Global Citizen app


Demand Equity

How the Power of the People Grounded a UK Flight Deporting Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

By Tess Lowery