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The U.K. cancels the first flight to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The European Court of Human Rights has intervened to stop the British government from flying a number of asylum seekers to Rwanda. After weeks of legal challenges in British courts, the decision represents a setback for this controversial policy of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government. Willem Marx reports from London.

WILLEM MARX: Hours before takeoff, just seven individuals were scheduled to travel on the first planned flight as part of the U.K.'s new partnership with the African nation to offshore its asylum process. For weeks, advocacy groups had sought to challenge the broader plan in British courts. Originally, dozens were scheduled for deportation Tuesday. But the total fell through individual legal challenges. And just minutes before departure, the remaining few names were removed from the passenger list. The chartered aircraft flew back empty to Spain at a huge cost to the British taxpayer. Appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, of which Britain remains a member despite Brexit, resulted in a temporary ban on such flights. Geoffrey Robertson runs a team of lawyers responsible for the lead case and outlined to the BBC the choices the government now faces.

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GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: It can certainly ask the court to list its interim measure, its, in effect, injunction. That would be what most democratic countries would do.

MARX: Alternatively, U.K. authorities could wait several weeks for the British high court to decide if the policy itself is lawful. Though, ministers say they're already planning for the next flight. A third option is to introduce new legislation that would require parliamentary approval. That is far from guaranteed. The major opposition party considers the program unworkable, unethical and un-British, says Labor legislator Lucy Powell.

LUCY POWELL: We fear, I think - and we're seeing this play out - that this is a deliberately controversial policy designed to take attention away from the government's other problems and get us all talking about something else.

MARX: The ruling last night by no means marks an end to the government's efforts to deter unsanctioned entry to the U.K. after more than 400 people arrived in small boats yesterday from France.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx