Updated June 14, 2022 at 8:07 PM ET

Great Britain's plan to send asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere on a plane to Rwanda constitutes human trafficking, an activist argues.

Nearly a dozen people were scheduled to board a flight Tuesday, but the flight was halted after last-minute injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights.

Immigrant rights advocates had mounted legal challenges to stop the deportations. Responding to the court, U.K. officials said they would attempt to move forward with more flights. "Our legal team are reviewing every decision made on this flight and preparation for the next flight begins now," said Home Secretary Priti Patel.

More court battles over the policy are expected in the coming weeks.

British officials argue the flights are an effort to reduce the demand and incentives for human traffickers bringing asylum-seekers into the country illegally by boat, which puts refugees' lives at risk.

Karen Doyle, the national organizer for immigrant rights organization Movement for Justice, calls it "obfuscation and lies" to call the deportations a humanitarian move.

"These asylum-seekers, we expect multiple suicide attempts in the coming 24 hours," Doyle told Morning Edition before the injunctions were announced. "Because they're being told they're being sent thousands of miles away to a country that they have no connection to."

Instead, Doyle argues, this is part of an effort by the government to distract from its own ongoing troubles. Those include COVID restriction-busting parties at Prime Minister Boris Johnson's residence, ongoing messiness regarding Brexit rules for Northern Ireland, and an announcement on Tuesday that Scotland would pursue another vote on separating from Great Britain.

"They throw some red meat to their racist base and hope it distracts from their corruption and failures," she said.

And the effort likely will fail, Doyle said: The problems in the refugees' home countries will keep them from returning, and a similar effort by Israel in 2014 resulted in all rerouted asylum-seekers using the same human trafficking networks and either returning to Europe or getting enslaved in Libya.

And Rwanda is a troubling destination, Doyle added, noting that police there recently fired on and killed protesting refugees in 2018. The BBC reports that the country, which has a population of about 13 million, already is home to 150,000 refugees from other African nations.

If it's allowed to move forward, the deportation effort could send a signal to leaders around the world.

"If Britain gets away with it, other countries are going to try as well," Doyle said.

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The United Kingdom plans to fly a group of asylum-seekers out of the U.K. and to Rwanda today. It's the first deportation flight to remove some asylum-seekers who arrived in the U.K. illegally by boat. More are expected next week. The policy has been widely criticized as cruel and barbaric. British Home Secretary Priti Patel defended it after it was announced in April. She says the goal is to disrupt gangs trafficking refugees.


PRITI PATEL: Criminals are exploiting the hopes and fears of migrants, pushing them to making dangerous journeys to the U.K. And this has devastating consequences for the countless men, women and children who've tragically lost their lives or loved ones on perilous journeys.

FADEL: Karen Doyle, the national organizer for Movement for Justice, an immigrant rights organization in the U.K., says this policy, it's a distraction.

KAREN DOYLE: This is a government that is failing, that has been ridden with corruption and scandal. And they've even called this policy of attacking immigrants a red meat policy. They throw some red meat to their racist base and hope it distracts from their own corruption and failures.

FADEL: Yesterday, London's high court did not grant an injunction to stop the flight. Among those who will be deported are Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian refugees. I asked Doyle if the policy will stop people from taking the risky journey to the U.K.

DOYLE: It is not because what is driving people to leave their homes and seek sanctuary still exists. It's just obfuscation and lies to say that it's about saving lives because the reality is with these asylum-seekers, we expect multiple suicide attempts in the coming 24 hours.

FADEL: Because they have to leave?

DOYLE: Because they're being told they're being sent thousands of miles away to a country that they have no connection to. The reality is this decision signals an end to any notion of British commitment to human rights. That's why we are putting everything into calling on all the component parts of this people trafficking 'cause that's what it is. It's offering Rwanda cash to take people. This is people trafficking. This is the government trafficking in refugees 'cause if Britain gets away with it, other countries are going to try as well.

FADEL: You mentioned, obviously, they're being sent to a country that they're not from - Rwanda. If you could just break down why Rwanda? Why are people who have fled from their countries being sent to a country that they're not from?

DOYLE: Rwanda has been selling itself for a number of years as the destination of choice for nations looking to get rid of their refugees. In 2014, they did a deal with Israel. Israel sent hundreds of refugees to Rwanda in a deal that was a carbon copy of this one. And long-term research over the course of that pact showed that everyone left Rwanda. Everyone ended up either back in Europe or trafficked again through - and enslaved in Libya because anyone who's coming through the African routes to Europe, they get caught in Libya, and they get enslaved in camps and forced to work and beaten and tortured.

FADEL: Yeah.

DOYLE: And Rwanda is not a democratic nation. This is a dictatorship. They've already fired on refugee protesters who were protesting the appalling conditions in the camps in Rwanda. They shot at refugees. Like, this is the reality of Rwanda, aside from this spin that's being sold by the British government.

FADEL: The U.N. refugee chief describes this policy as catastrophic. And you said that there's no time to wait because so many people could be deported. What should happen, then, in the meantime, in your view?

DOYLE: We're calling on mass pressure on the Rwandan government to pull out of this deal. We're calling on all the commonwealth nations to say, no, no, we should not be a part of this. We're calling on the African Union to say, no, we will not be a dumping ground for Britain's refugees who Britain should be taking responsibility for. We will not engage in people trafficking. The pilots, the airline workers, the guards, the escorts - all of them should look at their conscience, and they should refuse. The trade unions need to back them up and say, no, we will not have anything to do with this.

FADEL: Karen Doyle is the national organizer for Movement for Justice. Thank you so much.

DOYLE: OK. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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