A charter airline hired to remove people seeking refuge in the UK to Rwanda has pulled out of the scheme after pressure from campaigners.
A plane operated by Privilege Style first attempted to fly asylum seekers to the east African country in June but was grounded by an 11th hour ruling by the European court of human rights.
The Mallorca-based carrier had become known as the UK government’s “airline of last resort” for its willingness to conduct deportation flights that other airlines refused.
But after an email campaign by torture survivors and refugee organisations, Privilege Style has said it will no longer operate flights to Rwanda.
The development will leave the UK government in a fix. Two other charter airlines that previously conducted deportation flights, Titan Airways and AirTanker, have already ruled themselves out of the scheme.
In a letter to the charity Freedom from Torture, which has led the campaign under the hashtag #StopTheFlights, Privilege Style said it “hereby wishes to communicate the following: that it will not operate flights to Rwanda in the future. That it has never flown to Rwanda since the one flight scheduled for June 2022 (which is the reason for this controversy) was suspended.”
The UK signed a £120m deal with the Rwandan government in April to outsource the UK’s asylum system as it sought to find a solution to a growing number of refugees entering the UK via small boats in the Channel.
The deal meant people who had arrived in the UK by irregular means, such as by small boat, could be forced on to charter planes and flown to the east African country.
It was criticised by human rights organisations because of Rwanda’s record as an authoritarian state that repeatedly imprisons, tortures and murders alleged political opponents.
Privilege Style’s statement followed an escalation in public protests against it by campaigners. Last week, activists from Freedom from Torture presented the firm with “worst airline of the year” award at the carrier’s headquarters in Palma in front of the media.
According to the carrier, its VIP customers include several Spanish companies and top Spanish football clubs.
Campaigners targeted Privilege Style outside the Real Madrid v Barcelona match last week in Madrid, holding banners reading: “Don’t fly with Privilege Style while they profit from refugees’ pain.”
No flights have taken off yet to Rwanda because of legal challenges in the high court.
On 14 June, a Privilege Style Boeing 767 was due to take seven asylum seekers to Kigali from a military airport at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. The day before it had taken tourists from Tenerife, Spain, to Düsseldorf.
But the flight, which cost the UK taxpayer about £500,000, was cancelled at the last minute following a decision by the European court.
Liz Truss, the outgoing prime minister, had pledged to continue the scheme. Candidates considering running to be prime minister – including Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt and Boris Johnson – are expected to support the deportations.
Last month, a detailed review by the charity Medical Justice found many asylum seekers threatened with removal to Rwanda may have been tortured or trafficked into the UK.
Kolbassia Haoussou, a torture survivor and a director at Freedom from Torture, said: “This is a victory for people power – for thousands who took action and for the torture survivors who stood up against the UK government’s cruel ‘cash for humans’ Rwanda scheme.
“When I fled torture and persecution in central Africa, the UK gave me sanctuary and a chance to rebuild my life. It breaks my heart to see the government turning their back on people like me in their hour of need, and that private companies are profiting from their suffering.
“Privilege Style’s decision to no longer fly torture survivors to Rwanda sends a message to the aviation industry: if you try and cash in on the pain of refugees, you will be held to account.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We remain committed to our world-leading Migration Partnership with Rwanda, which will see those who come to the UK through dangerous, illegal and unnecessary routes relocated to Rwanda to rebuild their lives there.
“Rwanda is a safe and secure country with a strong track record of supporting asylum seekers and we will continue to robustly defend the partnership in the courts. We do not comment on operational matters.”