Rwanda Flights: Air Operators Warned of Human Rights Violations

A US ICE Air deportation flight.
US ICE Air deportation flight. Photo: US Immigration & Customs

The role of airlines and aviation authorities in facilitating removals of asylum seekers to Rwanda under a UK-Rwanda agreement has raised concerns among UN experts. These concerns extend to the proposed “Safety of Rwanda” Bill.

“Approval of the agreement and the bill wouldn’t absolve airlines and regulators of their responsibility,” the experts cautioned.

“Facilitating these removals could make them complicit in violating human rights and bypassing court orders.”

The warnings from the United Nations have come just as the UK government’s plan to send some asylum seekers by air to Rwanda has become law after months of negotiations.

In a statement on 22 April 2024, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak doubled down on his intention to see the Rwanda deportation scheme take flight.

Refoulment – A Breach of International Law

In a statement, UN experts emphasized that sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, or any country where they risk “refoulement” breaches international law.

By definition, refoulment is the act of being forced back to a place where one faces significant persecution. This violates a person’s fundamental right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

This concern voiced by the UN echoes a November 2023 UK Supreme Court ruling. The court determined that removals to Rwanda would contravene Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article 3 specifically prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Airline and Aviation Authorities Potentially Complicit

“Airlines and aviation authorities that assist with removals in violation of human rights must be held accountable,” the experts stressed.

They pointed to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These mandate that aviation regulators and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights.

UN Guiding Principle 13 specifically prohibits companies from contributing to human rights abuses. Additionally, Principle 23 requires businesses to comply with relevant laws, and respect internationally recognized human rights.

This means that they must actively manage the risk of being associated with human rights violations throughout their operations.

To address these concerns and emphasize the importance of upholding human rights, UN experts have reached out to the UK government, national, European, and international aviation regulators.

This includes contacting the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

International organizations like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) were also contacted.

Proposed UK-Rwanda Deportation Flights

With the Rwanda Bill now having passed into law, PM Rishi Sunak pointed to the proposed launch of deportation flights in “10 to 12 weeks.”

Mr Sunak claimed that an airport and commercial charters were now in readiness to begin facilitating flights to Rwanda.

Given the controversy surrounding such flight operations, commercial airlines and air operators have distanced themselves from involvement.

With a growing public backlash, the collateral damage of their participation means a hit to their customer base.

As a result, the pool of air operators willing to take up the UK government contract has dwindled. With a commercial charter operator likely tapped to carry out the controversial flights, neither the government nor the operator will disclose their involvement.

Earlier this week, the asylum seeker advocacy group Freedom From Torture staged a protest outside of UK air operator AirTanker headquarters.

The protest action came amid the continued speculation of AirTanker’s potential involvement in the Rwanda flights.

Concerned individuals sent over 26,000 emails to AirTanker following the speculation of their possible involvement in the proposed Rwanda flights. The operator’s potential involvement in flights has not been formally confirmed.

With the legislation now passed, the potential for a first flight draws a step closer, amid a growing storm of controversy.

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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 5 Min Read
5 Min Read
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