Britain's first flight to take asylum seekers to Rwanda could be blocked at the eleventh hour after the European Court of Human Rights issued an injunction to stop the deportation of one of the migrants, a charity and a government official said.
The plan of Britain's Conservative government to send some migrants, who had arrived illegally by crossing the English Channel in small boats from Europe, to the East African country has horrified liberal and left-wing opponents, charities and religious leaders who say it is inhumane.
In the last few days at least 30 individuals scheduled to be on the first flight successfully argued that they should not be deported to Rwanda on health or human rights grounds. This meant that just a handful were due to be on board the plane due to take off on Tuesday from an air force base in southwest England.
But, hours before it was due to leave, the European court which rules on possible violations of the European Convention on Human Rights said it had granted an injunction in relation to an Iraqi migrant to stop his deportation.
Its ruling said that "in the interests of the parties and the proper conduct of the proceedings before it..., the applicant should not be removed until the expiry of a period of three weeks following the delivery of the final domestic decision in the ongoing judicial review proceedings."
The High Court in London is due to hold a judicial review in July to decide on the legality of the scheme.
A charity said the ECHR ruling could also mean the others earmarked to go to Rwanda would not now be deported.
"This means it is now possible for the other six to make similar claims. We are so relieved," Clare Moseley of the charity Care4Calais told Reuters.
A government official who asked not to be named said London was still assessing what the ECHR decision meant but that it was possible the flight might not leave as planned.
Britain says the 120-million-pound ($148 million) deal struck with Rwanda will stem the flow of dangerous cross-Channel trips and smash the business model of people-smuggling networks.
But the United Nations' refugee chief called it "catastrophic", the entire leadership of the Church of England denounced it as immoral and shameful, and media reports have said Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, had privately described the plan as "appalling". read more
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has lambasted "leftie" lawyers for trying to block government policy, said the legal bids were undermining attempts to support safe routes for asylum seekers and hinted at changes to the law if problems persisted.
He also delivered a thinly-veiled attack on his high-profile critics.
"We are not going to be in any way deterred or abashed by some of the criticism that has been directed upon this policy, some of it from slightly unexpected quarters. We are going to get on and deliver," he told his cabinet ministers.