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British government pushes ahead with plan to deport undocumented migrants to Rwanda

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The British government is pushing ahead with one of its most controversial policies - a plan to deport undocumented migrants to the central African country Rwanda. So far, legal challenges have stymied the proposal that's already cost British taxpayers twice what government officials promised, and no one's even been deported yet. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been reporting on this for months, and she is in our London bureau now. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK, so who exactly is the U.K. planning to deport to Rwanda and why?

FRAYER: So these are Syrians, Afghans, other migrants who've been arriving in southern England, crossing the English Channel by boat without permission, without visas. More than 100,000 people have come to the U.K. this way in the past five years. The U.K. government...

CHANG: OK, so to be very clear, these are not Rwandan people.

FRAYER: No, absolutely not. These are people who may never have set foot on the continent of Africa before.

CHANG: Wow.

FRAYER: And the U.K. government says it cannot accommodate these additional migrants. Social services are spread thin. There's a housing shortage here. There's a cost of living crisis. And so the government says it's come up with this creative solution - is what it calls it - to deport them to Rwanda. And it has paid the Rwandan government about $300 million to take these people and pledged more funding. But nobody has been deported yet.

CHANG: And why is that?

FRAYER: Because U.K. and European courts have blocked flights, at times at the 11th hour. In the summer of 2022, a plane was on the runway, ready to take off for Rwanda. And then one by one, every migrant on that plane was plucked off, pulled off because of legal stays. And I talked to one of them, and they had these, like, harrowing emotional ordeals. They have concerns about whether Rwanda is a safe third country for people who have, in some cases, been fleeing persecution from elsewhere.

CHANG: So courts have blocked this policy. But then how is it that the U.K. can still push ahead?

FRAYER: Yeah. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is facing a revolt from these anti-immigrant hardliners in his own conservative party, who are threatening to oust him from power if he doesn't push this through. His immigration minister resigned this week. And so Sunak keeps revising this legal framework of this deal to try to get around these court rulings. Here he is at a news conference yesterday saying he's willing to block anyone - like, even refugees - from settling in the U.K.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: Claiming asylum - that's now blocked. Abuse of our modern slavery rules - blocked. The idea that Rwanda isn't safe - blocked.

FRAYER: That reference to modern slavery - I mean, Sunak accuses these people of being economic migrants and of abusing protections under British law that rescue people from potential slavery.

CHANG: OK, so Sunak is under pressure from the right wing of his own party. But what about voters? Like, how are Britons feeling about this - I don't know - rather unconventional immigration proposal, right?

FRAYER: Yeah. I mean, immigration has been a big issue here in the past. If you recall, Brexit, the vote to leave the European Union, for many was a vote to control the flow of Europeans into the U.K. But polls show immigration is really no longer one of the Brits' top concerns. For example, 10 years ago, 60% of Britons saw immigrants as potentially taking away their jobs. Now 60% of Britons see immigrants as crucial to this country's economic recovery.

CHANG: Wow. That is a pretty stark reversal in just a decade.

FRAYER: Yeah, and so doubling down on anti-immigrant sentiment may not work for Sunak. He is trailing in the polls ahead of an election next year. He's nevertheless taking this to parliament for a vote early next week, and his political future may depend on it, that is.

CHANG: NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Thank you so much, Lauren.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.