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Boris Johnson’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda suffered a bitter blow Tuesday night after the first planned flight was grounded on the runway following a late intervention by European judges.
The Kigali-bound flight had originally been scheduled to take off with 130 asylum seekers on board Tuesday night, though numbers had dwindled rapidly as the date approached due to multiple lawsuits aimed at the U.K. government.
In farcical scenes, the flight ultimately failed to leave the runway at all, with individuals still being pulled from the plane one by one throughout Tuesday evening following an 11th-hour intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. Eventually, every asylum seeker on board was granted a reprieve, and the empty plane returned to its hangar.
U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was “disappointed” the flight had failed to depart and described the European body’s decision to intervene as “very surprising.”
“We will not be deterred,” Patel added. “Our legal team are reviewing every decision made and preparation for the next flight begins now.”
The flight was part of controversial U.K. government plans aimed at deterring asylum seekers from making the dangerous crossing over the English Channel in small boats.
Under the agreement signed with the Kigali government, the U.K. will send some undocumented migrants — judged by the prime minister to be “anyone who enters the U.K. illegally” — to Rwanda, where they will be given temporary accommodation and given the choice to either apply for asylum in the east African country or return to their origin country.
If accepted for asylum, they will be allowed to remain in Rwanda for five years, after which they can apply again. There is no path to return to the U.K. legally.
The plans have divided public opinion within the U.K. and faced intense opposition on ethical, financial and practical grounds — most notably from the Church of England leadership and Prince Charles.
Human rights lawyers and protesters have been fighting legal battles for weeks to prevent the first scheduled flight from taking off. Their efforts had appeared to be in vain following a series of legal defeats, however, with the U.K.’s Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that the flight could go ahead.
But the last-minute intervention from the European judges proved key in reversing that decision.
In a statement several hours before the plane’s departure time, the ECHR said it had granted an “urgent interim measure” to one of the asylum seekers to remove him from the flight. The remaining six passengers were subsequently taken off the plane following similar injunctions.
The dramatic intervention is likely to provide further ammunition to Johnson’s highly-politicized attacks on European judges. Earlier Tuesday, he had already hinted he would consider taking the U.K. out of the European Convention on Human Rights as a result of the current standoff.
Johnson told broadcasters that “it may very well be necessary to change some laws” when pressed on whether Britain would consider withdrawing from the human rights body.
“The legal world is very good at picking up ways of trying to stop the government from upholding what we think is a sensible law,” Johnson said.