Boris Johnson has pledged to press ahead with contentious plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda which were described by Church of England bishops on Tuesday as “immoral”.
Speaking to the cabinet ahead of the first scheduled flight to Kigali on Tuesday, the prime minister won cheers of approval from his ministers as he defended the deal with Rwanda, which has agreed to process asylum claims and provide residence to successful applicants in return for an initial payment of £120mn.
“We are not going to be deterred or abashed by some of the criticism directed at this policy some of it from slightly unexpected quarters. We are going to get on and deliver,” Johnson said in a veiled reference to the dispute that has appeared to put his Conservative government at odds with much of the establishment and the heir to the throne.
“The objective is to ensure we make that clear distinction that I think everybody can see is fair and reasonable between legal immigration to this country . . . and dangerous and illegal cross-Channel migration which we intend to stop.”
On Tuesday, 23 Church of England bishops along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York said the plan, intended to deter people smugglers from trafficking migrants across the Channel, “should shame us as a nation”.
“The shame is our own, because our Christian heritage should inspire us to treat asylum seekers with compassion, fairness and justice, as we have for centuries,” they wrote in a letter to the Times.
The bishops added that the only way to prevent “evil trafficking” and deter people from taking unofficial routes into the country was to provide safe and legal alternatives.
Their letter followed weekend reports that in private comments Prince Charles, who is next in line to the throne, had described the Rwanda deportation plan as “appalling”.
The initiative has polarised opinion with many on the right of the Tory party applauding it as a means of establishing control over Britain’s sea borders. Around 10,000 people have entered the country via the Channel this year.
But the UN refugee agency has said that treating asylum seekers in this way breaches Britain’s obligations under both domestic and international law, while a coalition of NGOs and the Public and Commercial Services Union, representing many border staff, has been granted a full judicial review of the policy in July.
The review will probe the risks posed to asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda, which has its own long record of human rights abuses.
Some 39 of about 130 people who have been detained crossing the Channel into the UK since May, were originally scheduled to be flown to the central African country on Tuesday.
Although the Court of Appeal has refused to grant an urgent injunction to block the flight, individual legal challenges on human rights and health grounds have whittled the number of deportees down to seven.
At the High Court on Tuesday, Mr Justice Jonathan Swift dismissed the first of four further appeals brought on human rights grounds by an Iraqi Kurd asylum seeker due to be on the flight. Three further appeal cases will be heard later today.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, refused to hear a last-minute appeal brought by the two NGOs, an asylum seeker and the PCS Union, to prevent the flight from taking off.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss told the BBC on Tuesday that “significant numbers” would be removed to Rwanda by the end of the year, and that the first flight would take off regardless, in order to establish the principle.
Asked how much the charter would cost, she said: “The cost of illegal immigration to the British economy is huge that is why we are taking the action we are taking.”