Ministers were braced for legal challenges over widely criticised plans to forcibly send to Rwanda up to tens of thousands of asylum seekers who arrive in the UK in unauthorised Channel crossings.
Boris Johnson insisted his scheme to detain and fly migrants more than 4,000 miles to East Africa at the expense of the taxpayer was not “draconian and lacking in compassion”.
But both the Prime Minister and Priti Patel said on Thursday they were prepared to fight attempts to use the courts to block the plans heavily criticised by refugee charities.
They would not detail how much the programme will cost, but the Home Secretary has struck a £120 million economic deal with Rwanda and cash for each removal is expected to follow.
Labour accused the Prime Minister of trying to distract from the partygate scandal with the “unworkable, unethical and extortionate” migration scheme.
Charities condemned them as “cruel and nasty” plans that will fail to address the issue and cause more “suffering and chaos”, while criticising Rwanda’s human rights track record.
And protesters wielding signs with the message “refugees welcome here” gathered outside the Home Office, declaring their intention to “fight back” against the move.
Battling to remain in power after being fined by police for breaching coronavirus laws, Mr Johnson tasked the Navy with ensuring “no boat makes it to the UK undetected”.
Officials expect thousands of migrants who entered by means deemed illegal, such as through the perilous Channel crossings, would be removed to Rwanda in the coming years.
Giving a major speech in Kent, Mr Johnson said the agreement is “uncapped” and Rwanda will have the “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead”.
He said the partnership will be “fully compliant with our international legal obligations”, while insisting Rwanda is “one of the safest countries in the world”.
“But nevertheless, we expect this will be challenged in the courts,” Mr Johnson added, as he hit out at what he called a “formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”.
He said they have “made it their business to thwart removals and frustrate the Government” and have caused the UK to be “seen as a soft touch for illegal migration by some of our partners”.
“So I know this system will not take effect overnight,” Mr Johnson added.
I Stephanie Boyce, the president of the Law Society of England and Wales that represents solicitors, warned there are “serious questions” about whether the plans comply with international law.
“It is particularly disappointing – this week of all weeks – the Government is repeating misleading suggestions that legal challenges are politically motivated,” she said.
“If the government wishes to avoid losing court cases, it should act within the law of the land.”
During a visit to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, Ms Patel was confident that she would be able to fend off legal challenges after coming under pressure to tackle Channel crossings.
“People actually said this will never happen and look at the work that has taken place to achieve this,” she said.
She said that the “vast majority” of those who arrive in the UK “illegally” will be detained and considered for relocation to Rwanda but declined to share specific details after it was reported it would only apply to male migrants.
The number of people who can be relocated will be “unlimited”, with the first due to receive formal notifications within weeks, and the first flights expected to take place in the coming months.
Meanwhile, fresh arrivals reached the shore in Dover on Thursday, in what officials acknowledged was a busy day for crossings. It is thought the total number of migrants to have arrived on small boats so far this year has passed 5,000.
Mr Johnson accepted the Rwanda deal is not a “magic bullet” that will solve the crossings alone.
But he hopes it will break the business model of the “vile people smugglers” who risk turning the Channel into a “watery graveyard”.
British Red Cross executive director Zoe Abrams said the humanitarian network was “profoundly concerned” about the plans to “send traumatised people halfway round the world to Rwanda”.
“We are not convinced this drastic measure will deter desperate people from attempting to cross the Channel either. People come here for reasons we can all understand, like wanting to be reunited with loved ones, or because they speak the language. Making it harsher may do little to stop them risking their lives,” she said.
Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon urged the Government to “immediately rethink” the “cruel and nasty” plans, warning they could cost up to £1.4 billion a year.
“Treating people like human cargo by using the force of military to repel vulnerable people who have already endured extreme human suffering, and expelling them to centres in Rwanda, a country with a questionable record on human rights, is dangerous, cruel and inhumane.”
The policies will “do little to deter desperate people from seeking protection or stop the smugglers but only lead to more human suffering, chaos and at huge expense to the UK”, he added.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called the plans “unworkable”, “extortionate” and an attempt to distract from Mr Johnson being fined for breaching his own coronavirus laws.
Ms Patel insisted the agreement with Rwanda does not hinge on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is facing opposition in the House of Lords.
Asked by the PA news agency, she said: “No, no, it’s not. It’s not.
“So the whole principle of this agreement partnership that we have is not hinged on the Nationality and Borders Bill, let me be clear about that.”
She said the Home Office is prepared for legal challenges, as she accused lawyers of “fleecing the British taxpayer”.
“A lot of this is legal aid money that goes into the merry-go-round of claim after claim after claim,” she added.
But the costs of the Rwandan programme remained uncertain.
The Home Office said the taxpayer would pay per person relocated, but would not say how much.
As well as chartered flights for removal, it will pay for caseworkers, legal advice, translators, accommodation, food and healthcare for every person relocated.
For those who successfully claim asylum in Rwanda, it will fund an integration package to help them put down roots.
Mr Johnson pledged £50 million in new funding for boats, aerial surveillance and military personnel to help ensure the measures are a “very considerable deterrent” to crossings.
And he said the individuals who succeed in making it to the UK “will be taken not to hotels at vast public expense” and instead will be housed in Greek-style detention centres, with the first opening at a former RAF barracks in North Yorkshire “shortly”.
Around 250 to 300 military personnel will be dedicated to police migrants in the English Channel on busy days, it is understood. They will work on ships and aircraft and will include Army personnel, freeing up Border Force staff for processing.
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