The last thing Abu Ali expected when he hid in a lorry on the final stage of a long and frightening journey from jail in Khartoum to the English coast was to find himself back behind bars.
Like other young Sudanese persecuted for their part in the protests that helped end Omar al-Bashir’s 30 year rule in 2019, he believed Britain, the former colonial power, would grant him sanctuary.
“My dream when I fled Sudan was that I would never be imprisoned again for no reason. I did not think this was possible in the UK,” the 22-year-old said by phone from Colnbrook detention centre at Heathrow.
Abu Ali (not his real name) is among more than 130 asylum seekers apprehended on the Kent coast in May and detained on home secretary Priti Patel’s orders pending their planned removal to central Africa. He has found himself caught up in a showpiece UK government plan to pay Rwanda an initial £120mn to process asylum seekers and provide successful applicants with residence.
The programme is part of efforts by Boris Johnson’s administration to toughen the UK asylum system to deter refugees from making irregular journeys into the UK — often by boat — and to “break the business model” of people smugglers.
But the scheme was brought to a dramatic, if temporary, halt this week when a string of legal challenges that went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights grounded the first of many planned removal flights.
Some on the right have applauded the attempt to establish some control over sea borders. But the initiative has caused outrage among other parts of UK society, including Church of England bishops and archbishops, who described it as “immoral”.
“There is no reason for people to put their lives at risk in the hands of people smuggling gangs by getting into a small boat to cross the dangerous Channel,” a Home Office spokesperson said.
“People should claim asylum in the first country they reach or, for those in need of our protection, use one of our safe and legal routes to come to the UK. Our focus remains on helping people directly from regions of conflict and instability.”
According to the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, the “clear majority” of people taking irregular routes into Britain are not economic migrants but turn out like Abu Ali, to have real grounds for claiming asylum. Aside from those covered by country-specific schemes for Ukraine and to an extent Afghanistan, there are in effect few if any official routes for refugees to claim protection in the UK.
“You see in the profiles of people arriving across the Channel that safe and legal routes are effectively closed to them,” said a spokesperson for the UNHCR. “We are deeply concerned that the UK is outsourcing its obligations to people seeking asylum and penalising them for that act of seeking safety in a way that is not permitted by the Refugee Convention.”
Whether the Rwanda policy conforms to UK and international law will be a battle for lawyers in coming weeks.
Originally from Darfur where al-Bashir’s regime was accused of war crimes, Abu Ali said he was detained for taking part in protests and repeatedly beaten over the course of 15 days.
“All I was doing was dreaming of a better country, a better life,” he said.
He was terrified of being sent to Rwanda, and would never have fled his own country, he said, if he had known he would end up being sent to another he viewed as similarly repressive. Rwanda has its own history of human rights abuses, most recently relating to freedom of speech.
Human rights and refugee organisations are concerned about the distress imposed on people caught up in the scheme like Abu Ali.
Two of the seven people who the ECHR ordered to be taken off Tuesday’s aborted flight, described their fears as the operation took place.
They said they had their telephones removed, were separated from each other, and were driven to a military base individually in the backs of vans each one guarded by three or four men. Each of them had their wrists tied to their waists with Velcro restraints.
At the base they said they were left for hours without information on what was happening to them. When he was eventually escorted to the plane, one of the detainees said he panicked and cried out.
“I couldn’t control myself,” the man said.
Describing the scene in the plane, he said a Vietnamese man, among the deportees was biting his tongue [to stop himself from shouting out] and another Iranian man was crying. He added that when officials eventually came to inform him that he would not be sent that day, he cried too.
Before the flight was aborted, the manifest included three Iranians, two Iraqis, a Vietnamese man and an Albanian. But some refugee organisations are perplexed by the disproportionate number of Sudanese who are among the other 130 asylum seekers slated for removal to Rwanda — around a third according to Care4Calais, one of the charities challenging the policy through the courts.
Clare Moseley, its chief executive, said typically Sudanese make up a far smaller proportion of those crossing to the UK from France. “So why have they been chosen?” she asked.
The Home Office declined to explain.
Another Sudanese refugee among the group held at Colnbrook said he was 17 — a minor — and had been given no support since being sent there 10 days ago. He fled Sudan after being jailed and mistreated at the age of 13 in West Kordofan province. He then spent two years as a slave to militias in Libya, before escaping, braving the Mediterranean in a rickety boat, and crossing the Alps by foot.
“I don’t understand what is happening. I just wanted a safe place,” he said.