Rwandan state airline rejected UK proposal to fly asylum seekers to Kigali

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Rwanda’s state-owned airline turned down a UK government proposal to transport asylum seekers to Kigali as part of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s migrant offshoring plan because it feared damaging its brand.

RwandAir was approached by the UK government late last year about running removal flights from Britain to Rwanda but declined the offer because of concerns about reputational risk, according to two people briefed on the situation.

The airline, which is wholly owned by the Rwandan government, has expanded its UK operations over the past year and will start daily commercial flights from London Heathrow airport to Kigali from the end of this month.

“RwandAir said ‘No’ because of the potential damage to their brand,” said a Home Office insider, noting the “irony” of the flag carrier distancing itself from a scheme that Rwanda’s government has said it is “proud” to be involved in.

They also cast doubt on the idea of contracting a Royal Air Force plane to transport asylum seekers, saying it would be “very expensive”.

Sunak has made “stopping the boats” crossing the English Channel one of five pre-election pledges to voters, and the plan to remove migrants to Rwanda is the linchpin of his strategy.

The Supreme Court ruled against the policy last year and no one has yet been sent to Rwanda, but government officials say the scheme will act as a deterrent to other people hoping to make the journey from France to the UK.

Sunak met Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, in Downing Street on Tuesday. Number 10 said afterwards that “both leaders looked forward to flights departing to Rwanda in the spring”.

Their meeting came as NGO Freedom from Torture launched a campaign to dissuade other airlines from participating in removals to Rwanda, describing the policy as “cruel and wrong”. 

Some commercial carriers and charter companies previously used by the UK and other European governments for deportation flights have already ruled themselves out. 

Thousands of people emailed AirTanker, a UK charter airline with Ministry of Defence and RAF contracts, within hours of Freedom from Torture’s campaign launch, seeking to persuade the company to rule itself out of the Rwanda scheme, as it did in 2022. AirTanker was contacted for comment.    

Privilege Style was contracted in 2022 to operate flights to Kigali but pulled out under pressure from campaigners © Justine Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Privilege Style, the Mallorca-based carrier originally contracted by the Home Office to operate flights to Kigali in 2022, pulled out following a mass mail campaign run by the same charity.

The campaign came after a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights grounded the first flight, setting off a string of legal challenges that have held the removals up until now. Privilege Style said at the time it would “not operate flights to Rwanda in the future”. 

The Rwandan government declined to comment. RwandAir was contacted for comment.

Ministers are rapidly working behind the scenes to make the Rwanda scheme workable before legislation returns to parliament next week for its final rounds of “ping pong” between the House of Commons and House of Lords. Peers in the upper house inflicted a series of defeats on the Rwanda asylum bill last month.

Rishi Sunak greets Rwandan president Paul Kagame ahead of a bilateral meeting at Downing Street on Tuesday © Tolga Akmen/EPA/Shutterstock

One person briefed on the government’s plans — which are subject to change — said officials were currently targeting mid to late-May for the first flights, and that the Home Office was casting a wide net to identify people who could be sent in the first tranche. 

This could include people who had exhausted all of their appeals processes and those who had signed up to relocate to Rwanda voluntarily.

“It’s proof of concept,” the person said, adding that the optics of a flight in the air would be the same irrespective of who was in it.

Under a deal signed by London and Kigali this year, unsuccessful asylum seekers who cannot be returned to their own country are being offered £3,000 to move to Rwanda instead of remaining in the UK.

But people briefed on the scheme said no one had yet officially signed up. Although a handful of asylum seekers had come forward with expressions of interest and spoken to Home Office representatives they had later changed their minds, the people said.

The Home Office said: “We have robust operational plans in place to get flights off the ground to Rwanda in spring.”

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