Day of drama and despair before Rwanda flight called off

THEn Tuesday morning, Jetmir*, a 26-year-old asylum seeker, woke up in Colnbrook immigration removal centre with a sickening knot in his stomach. It was the day he believed he would be bundled on to a plane and forcibly removed from Britain – not to his native Albania but to a country he knew nothing of.

He could hear the sound of planes landing and taking off at nearby Heathrow airport and feared it was only a matter of hours before he would be put on a flight to Rwanda along with six other asylum seekers.

The seven would be the focus of a day of high drama as Boris Johnson’s government battled with the courts to try to ensure that at least one of them would be sent away.

At stake was the political reputation of the prime minister and Priti Patel, who had previously claimed this would be the future for thousands of people who say they have come to the UK to seek sanctuary.

The Tories argue that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda will help to reduce the numbers of people coming to the UK in small boats across the Channel.

Jetmir and five others – from Vietnam, Iran and Iraq – had been placed in adjoining cells in Colbrook. The seventh asylum seeker was at Brook House removal centre near Gatwick airport.

Challenges at the high court and court of appeal raising general points about the lawfulness of the flight had been lost in the days before. The lawyers were struggling to remain upbeat and the asylum seekers themselves were so distressed they could not eat or sleep.

“Why would the Home Office send an Albanian asylum seeker to Rwanda? It makes no sense,” Jetmir said. He said he would take his own life. “I want to die in the UK, not in Rwanda.”

The buildups to deportation flights are rarely serene affairs, and this one was more action-packed than most. Urgent applications made at the high court on behalf of individuals failed. Many of the seven speak little or no English and had little understanding of what was happening. But they understood that, as the hours passed, things were looking more and more hopeless.

Anti-deportation protesters identified that the flight was likely to be part of the Privilege Style fleet taking off from Stansted at 10.30pm, and set about lobbying the Spanish airline in the hope of persuading it not to take the Home Office’s business. Privilege Style ignored them. And the Home Office switched the arrangements at the last minute to a military plane, which was to take off from RAF Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.

Jetmir self-harmed just before he was collected from Colnbrook. He was patched up at the centre’s medical facility and told coldly that his deportation would still go ahead. By 5pm hope was draining away. The asylum seekers’ phones were taken away. They were handcuffed and their legs were shackled. One was tied to a seat as they were driven away, it was claimed.

Protesters locked themselves to metal tubes outside Colnbrook to try to prevent the vans from leaving. But they got through and the asylum seekers were driven to RAF Boscombe Down accompanied by police escorts. The Home Office was keen to ensure nothing went wrong.

In snatched phone conversations with supporters and loved ones while en route, the asylum seekers said over and over again that they did not want to go to Rwanda and would not survive there.

Two people were removed from the flight list after successful legal challenges. At the airport one of the asylum seekers fainted and a doctor was called for. At least two others prayed. When told they were boarding the plane, one began to weep.

The man who had fainted was placed in a wheelchair. Two officers carried him up the steps, a witness said. Onboard they were placed in seats and surrounded by three guards, two to the side and one behind.

But a judge in Strasbourg had reversed their fortunes. Earlier in the day the European court of human rights (ECHR) had been approached by the human rights lawyers Duncan Lewis about their client, a 54-year-old Iraqi who had come to Britain by small boat less than a month ago.

An interim ruling was sent through from the court raising concerns about conditions for asylum seekers in Rwanda, and said the Iraqi man should not be sent there before the policy had been fully scrutinised in the UK’s high court.

The other asylum seekers’ lawyers embarked on a new court application to save their clients from being offshored, using the ECHR letter to argue to out-of-hours high court judges that they too should not board the flight.

一つずつ, new individual injunctions were granted as the clock ticked towards takeoff time. “The plane can fly with just one person on board,” Home Office sources said. But eventually the game was up. At about 10pm the Home Office conceded that the flight would not take off.

A 26-year-old Iraqi Kurdish man had earlier told the Guardian: “We are all feeling so bad that they are sending us by force to Rwanda. It is too much to think about. My message to anyone who will listen is please stop the plane.”

As darkness fell his wish had been granted. “I’m very happy," 彼は言った. “That is all I can say at this moment.”

*Jetmir’s name has been changed to preserve his anonymity