Suella Braverman has claimed that being forcibly deported to Rwanda is “not a punishment” for crossing the English Channel, as asylum seekers told The Independent they would “prefer to die” than undergo removal.
The home secretary said the policy would “deter more people” despite small boat arrivals rocketing to new records since it was announced in April.
Ms Braverman refused to give a start date for flights to Kigali after the High Court ruled on Monday that the policy was lawful, suggesting potential appeals would have to finish first.
Charities have vowed to continue fighting the “grotesque” plans, and further legal challenges could be brought by people selected for deportation.
Judges overturned eight removal decisions because the Home Office did not “properly consider the circumstances” of the asylum seekers, ordering it to reconsider those cases.
“Being relocated to Rwanda is not a punishment, but an innovative way of addressing a major problem to redress the imbalance between illegal and legal migration routes,” Ms Braverman told the House of Commons.
“It is a humane and practical alternative for those who come here through dangerous, illegal and unnecessary routes. By making it clear that they cannot expect to stay in the UK, we will deter more people from coming here and make such routes unviable.”
Several Conservative MPs asked the home secretary when flights would start, with none having been organised since an aborted attempt in June.
The home secretary did not give a time estimate but vowed to “vigorously defend” any further legal challenges, adding: “Once the litigation process has come to an end we will move swiftly to operationalise the agreement.”
Ms Braverman has previously said she expected the ruling to be appealed and that the government had to “let that play out”.
The High Court will not consider any appeal applications until 16 January, and any further hearings could take many months to be argued and decided.
During these proceedings, the government has continued to issue more “notices of intent” telling asylum seekers it may send them to Rwanda because they stopped in safe countries on their journey to the UK.
The Independent reported how some asylum seekers forced onto the attempted June flight self-harmed and said they wanted to kill themselves, being attached to seats before take-off was cancelled following injunctions by the European Court of Human Rights.
Zoran*, who was among those forced onto the plane, spoke of being put in a restraining harness “like a dog”. The 26-year-old Iranian Kurd, who arrived in the UK in April after he said he had fled political persecution, described how the experience had left him so traumatised he is currently on medication.
“Why has everyone in this place become my enemy? What have I done that they hurt me so much? I have never hurt anyone,” he told The Independent.
The family of Rasool*, an Iraqi Kurd who was also among those who were due to be deported to Rwanda in June, said they “didn’t have any hope”.
“Day by day we hear more bad news about asylum,” Rasool’s sister told The Independent. “My brother is depressed, he is on antidepressant drugs but it doesn’t help because he always remembers that terrible memory [from June],” she added.
In messages sent via his sister, Rasool said: “I am shocked and terrified to hear about the High Court decision, I don’t know what this will mean for me.”
Meanwhile, in a hotel near Heathrow Airport that is holding asylum seekers, there was desperation and dismay.
“We would prefer to die in the Channel than to be sent to Rwanda,” said Banu, 28 who fled Iraq. “When I heard the decision I felt sick and thought about killing myself,” added Ali, 34 who fled political persecution in Iraqi Kurdistan. “I came to the UK from Turkey to Greece by boat. I faced death, and saw at least eight people die in front of my eyes.“
Ms Braverman did not directly answer a question on whether survivors of last week’s disaster in the English Channel would be considered for deportation to Rwanda, calling the sinking “tragic” but saying the journey was “unlawful”.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, criticised “flawed and chaotic” decision-making after the High Court found that the Home Office had mixed up some asylum seekers’ accounts and failed to consider important evidence in their cases – including on torture and trafficking.
“The court concluded the agreement is lawful because of two key things – that the number of people Rwanda takes will be very limited and there will be lots more money provided by the UK government,” she added. “Can the home secretary tell us how many people she expects to send to Rwanda?”
The home secretary did not give a figure but said the government was “strengthening the casework process” and would not deport anyone who would be unsafe.
Last week, Rishi Sunak announced that the government would propose new laws next year that would enable the government to refuse asylum claims from anyone arriving “illegally” on small boats.
The UN Refugee Agency warned the proposals would violate international law, but Ms Braverman said the government would press ahead, telling MPs: “If you come here irregularly or illegally on a small boat, you will be detained and you will be swiftly removed to a safe third country or to Rwanda for your asylum claim to be processed.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity