LONDON — Britain canceled a flight that was scheduled to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda late Tuesday after the European Court of Human Rights intervened, saying the plan carried “a real risk of irreversible harm.”
Lawyers for the asylum seekers launched a flurry of case-by-case appeals seeking to block the deportation of everyone on the government’s list.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss had said earlier in the day that the plane would take off no matter how many people were on board. But after the appeals, no one remained.
The decision to scrap the Tuesday flight capped three days of frantic court challenges as immigration rights advocates and labor unions sought to stop the deportations. The leaders of the Church of England joined the opposition, calling the government’s policy “immoral.”
Despite the outcry, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had emphatically defended Britain’s plan, arguing that it is a legitimate way to protect lives and thwart the criminal gangs that smuggle migrants across the English Channel in small boats.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was disappointed the flight was unable to leave but would not be “deterred from doing the right thing.”
“Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now,” Patel said.
Johnson announced an agreement with Rwanda in April in which people who enter Britain illegally will be deported to the East African country. In exchange for accepting them, Rwanda will receive millions of dollars in development aid. The deportees will be allowed to apply for asylum in Rwanda, not Britain.
Opponents have argued that it is illegal and inhumane to send people thousands of miles to a country they don’t want to live in. Britain in recent years has seen an illegal influx of migrants from such places as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen.
Activists have denounced the policy as an attack on the rights of refugees that most countries have recognized since the end of World War II.
The U.N. refugee agency condemned the plan out of concern that other countries will follow suit as war, repression and natural disasters force a growing number of people from their homes.
Politicians in Denmark and Austria are considering similar proposals. Australia has operated an asylum-processing center in the Pacific island nation of Nauru since 2012.
“At a global level, this unapologetically punitive deal further condones the evisceration of the right to seek asylum in wealthy countries,” said Maurizio Albahari, a migration expert at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana as he described the UK policy.
Many millions of people around the globe have been displaced over the past two decades, putting the international consensus on refugees under strain. The world had more than 26 million refugees in the middle of last year, more that double the number two decades ago, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Millions more have left their homes voluntarily, seeking economic opportunities in developed nations.
In Britain, those pressures have led to a surge in the number of people crossing the English Channel in leaky inflatable boats, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Last November, 27 people died when their boat sank in the waters between France and England.
Johnson, fighting for his political life amid concerns about his leadership and ethics, responded by promising to stop such risky journeys.