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The British government plans to deport migrants to Rwanda

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In terms of immigration, the U.K. equivalent of the U.S.-Mexico border is the English Channel. The British government says that there are now too many migrants crossing the sea for the country to accommodate. So they have come up with what they call a novel, though critics call it illegal, solution - deport the migrants to Rwanda in Africa. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from England's South Coast.

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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The wind sort of whips off these white cliffs of Dover. Behind them, there's a medieval fortress. And stretching out into the sea is a vast industrial port, ferocious whitecap waves. Just beyond here is the English Channel and, across it, France.

MATT COKER: We've seen two or three boats already today. The first boat we see - that had about 45 to 50 people on board.

FRAYER: Fisherman Matt Coker is speaking by phone from his boat offshore while watching migrants' boats bob in the waves right in front of him.

COKER: It gets busier every year. I've been on the sea 25, nearly 30 years, and I've seen nothing like it in my life.

FRAYER: More than a hundred thousand undocumented migrants have made this crossing in the past five years. It's treacherous. Six men from Afghanistan recently drowned. John Heron is a local who jogs on the beach where migrants often come ashore.

JOHN HERON: If someone's desperate enough to get in a boat - look how cold that is.

FRAYER: Yeah.

HERON: You can't help but feeling empathy for them.

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DAVID SLATER: The difficulty is, of course, some of the local people are now getting weary.

FRAYER: David Slater is a chaplain who goes out on lifeboat rescues. But he says even he understands why there have been anti-immigrant protests in the area.

SLATER: I am, as a Christian, wanting to minister to people who are in humanitarian disaster but equally well having to minister to the local people here.

FRAYER: Local people, some of whom are resentful of undocumented migrants, see them as a drain on public funds during the U.K.'s worst cost-of-living crisis since World War II. Concern about immigration prompted many Brits to back Brexit, limiting Europeans' ability to live and work here. The same sentiment has fueled one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's signature policies, a new law that criminalizes crossing the English Channel by boat without a visa. And it says violators will be sent home and, if that's unsafe, then to Rwanda in Central Africa no matter their country of origin. Sunak says the threat of being deported to Rwanda will deter people from paying smugglers to ferry them here.

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PRIME MINISTER RISHI SUNAK: This is how we're going to break the cycle of these criminal gangs and take control of our borders. People need to know that if they come here illegally - that they will be detained and swiftly removed.

FRAYER: His home secretary Suella Braverman says this has become an obsession for her.

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SUELLA BRAVERMAN: I would love to be having a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda. That's my dream.

FRAYER: The U.K. is paying Rwanda to take these people, people like this man.

N A: (Speaking Kurdish).

FRAYER: He's a member of Iran's Kurdish minority. He spoke to NPR by phone from a hotel in England where the government is housing migrants. And he asked us to use only his initials, N.A., because he's worried media attention could jeopardize his asylum case. He was slated to be deported to Rwanda. He was even in a plane on the runway last summer when a legal stay was granted and the flight was called off.

N A: (Speaking Kurdish).

FRAYER: "My legs were trembling. I never thought I'd see my family again," he says, adding that he felt treated like a criminal. His lawyer, Qays Sediqi, says his client faced persecution in Iran and has family in the U.K. His sister lives here. He would not be a drain on society, he says. But because of the way he came to the U.K. - in a boat, without a visa - officials won't even hear his asylum plea. This policy, Sediqi says...

QAYS SEDIQI: It just strips every right that an asylum seeker has in the U.K. It's an international right of every human being that they can claim asylum. It's not illegal. And the U.K. essentially wants to prevent individuals from doing that.

FRAYER: The United Nations has said this amounts to an asylum ban for almost everyone besides Ukrainians, who get special refugee visas here.

ROSE HUDSON-WILKIN: People can open their homes and invite refugees in if they are white.

FRAYER: Rose Hudson-Wilkin is the Church of England bishop for Dover, the area where so many migrants come ashore.

HUDSON-WILKIN: But if you are brown or belong to a Muslim country, then we're going to simply gather you around and send you off to Rwanda.

FRAYER: The British government says this is not about race. It's about stopping illegal immigration. And most Britons support that. But the U.K. Court of Appeals has called deporting people to Rwanda unlawful. The U.K. Supreme Court is set to take this up next month. And so for now, no flights to Rwanda are taking off. But Prime Minister Sunak is running for reelection with the slogan, stop the boats. And for him, that means deporting people to Rwanda, and he vows to do that in the coming months. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Dover, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.