LONDON — The plane was preparing for take off, and the small group on board seemed destined to become the first asylum seekers flown 4,000 miles to Rwanda under Britain’s new hard-line migration policy.
Then came the reprieve.
“It was a relief, a gift from God,” said one man, who was on the plane and who spoke on condition that only his nickname, Ali, was used, as he described how he learned that the flight from a British military air base was canceled and he was told to disembark. Britain’s High Court has required that all claimants in the continuing asylum cases remain anonymous, according to Ali’s lawyer, Toufique Hossain.
The flight Tuesday was grounded after a last-minute intervention from the European Court of Human Rights, in a significant blow to a British government policy that is intended to deter asylum seekers from arriving in Britain from France.
The hours leading up to the cancellation of the flight had made it “one of the more horrifying nights of my life,” Ali, an asylum seeker from Iran, said in a phone interview from an immigration center in London where he is now being held.
“I was in disbelief: I had run from my country to save my life. I came here seeking justice and safety, but instead was met with psychological torture,” he added, speaking through an interpreter. The details of his account were confirmed by Mr. Hossain, his lawyer, and Care4Calais, an aid group that helps refugees in Britain.
On Wednesday, the ruling from the European court prompted a fierce debate within the Conservative Party of Prime Minister Boris Johnson about whether Britain should remove itself from the remit of the court, which is part of the Council of Europe, and not the European Union, which Britain has left. Though some ministers played down the idea of making such changes, Downing Street said all options remained on the table.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, promised to press ahead with the policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, labeling the decision from the European Court of Human Rights to stop the flight “disappointing and surprising” and describing the court’s workings as “opaque.”
“We believe that we are fully compliant with our domestic and international obligations, and preparations for our future flights and the next flights have already begun,” she said in Parliament. Inaction was “not an option, at least not a morally responsible one,” she added, because Britain had a duty to deter people from making the dangerous crossing on small, often unseaworthy, boats across one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Ali is one of those people. He traveled through Turkey and Greece to France and arrived in Britain on a small dinghy packed with about 40 people in early May. A convert to Christianity, he fled Iran in 2019 after he hosted prayer groups at his home, putting him at risk of a death sentence, he said. With the police looking for him, his family told him he had no choice but to flee, he added.
His experience mirrored that of a refugee from Iraq who was also scheduled to be deported on Tuesday and whose case was cited by the European Court of Human Rights as legal grounds for halting the flight.
According to the court, the Iraqi refugee, who is referred to as KN, had claimed asylum in Britain on May 17 after arriving by boat from Europe. On June 6, he was notified that his asylum claim “had been deemed inadmissible” and that he would be sent to Rwanda instead. The court ruling on Tuesday said that removal to the African country would pose a “real risk of irreversible harm” to KN, who had claimed “he was in danger in Iraq,” where he had been a victim of torture, according to a medical report cited by the court.
The impact of Mr. Johnson’s policy on asylum seekers escaping such situations has prompted condemnation from advocacy groups, church leaders and — according to British news reports — Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.
Rights groups reacted with relief to the decision to ground the flight, which they had feared would leave on Tuesday with a handful of asylum seekers after the British Supreme Court refused a request to intervene to stop it.
Though frustrated by the intervention of the courts, Mr. Johnson is unlikely to have been surprised. When he announced the policy in April, he admitted that it was likely to face legal challenges and that has led critics to claim that it was brought in mainly for political reasons and was intended to make the government look tough on immigration.
The government argues that none of its critics have a solution for solving the problem of channel crossings. It says the prospect of deportation to Rwanda will deter people from attempting such journeys by small boat, destroying the business model of people smugglers, though there is no evidence for that yet.
Critics contend that the Rwanda policy is unworkable as well as unethical. They point to the cost of the flight that never left the ground on Tuesday, estimated at 500,000 pounds, or about $600,000, by British news reports. Ms. Patel refused On Wednesday to say whether that money, or any part of it, would be recouped and Yvette Cooper, who speaks for the opposition Labour Party on home affairs, described the episode as a “shambles.”
A challenge to the legality of the policy is expected to be heard next month, but the government could try to place asylum seekers on another flight to Rwanda before then if it can find a legal path to do so.
If that happens, those facing deportation can expect to be given a plane ticket and malaria pills, Ali said. He described how, on Tuesday, his phone was confiscated and he was taken with six others to a room where they were strip-searched for any dangerous tools or materials they might use to harm themselves.
At around 3 p.m., the group was driven in two vans to an airfield where, after waiting in the van for at least four hours, Ali said he began to break down and sob.
“I realized that they were taking me away from my family — I felt helpless,” he said. A guard asked if he was getting angry and would become violent, he said.
“I told him that I came to this country to live in freedom and peace, not to cause harm,” he said.
Although he remains in Britain, the threat of deportation had left its mark. “Every day leading up to the departure date felt like I was nearing my own execution,” he said.