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A U.K. high court will rule on whether a policy to deter asylum seekers is unlawful

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The High Court in London is set to rule this week on a controversial British policy. It was introduced earlier this year and designed to keep migrants from traveling to the U.K. through routes that authorities say are illegal. Willem Marx has this report on what's at stake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have a problem. Please help our - we have a (inaudible).

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Early Wednesday morning in the dark and icy channel of water between France and England, a small inflatable boat ran into difficulties and someone on board recorded this message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Water coming (inaudible). We don't have anything for this, for feeling safety. Please help me, bro (ph). Please, please.

MARX: British and French Coast Guard vessels, fishing trawlers and helicopters raced to rescue those aboard. Dozens were pulled from the water alive. Four were found dead. Several others remain missing. More than 45,000 people have made this dangerous voyage to Britain this year. Despite such tragedies, the boats have kept coming, just as stowaways on trucks have done for years.

This summer, after months of difficult travel from the African nation of Sudan, a young migrant entered Britain, known to the court by the initials OOA.

OOA: (Speaking Arabic).

MARX: "I didn't imagine that the moment I arrived," he told NPR, "that I would be placed into handcuffs as if I was a criminal and was considered one."

OOA: (Speaking Arabic).

MARX: But, he insists, his circumstances back home in Sudan, which has seen political violence recently, left him with no choice but to flee.

OOA: (Speaking Arabic).

MARX: "It was dangerous to stay on. My life was in danger," he says. "My family was surrounded by a dangerous situation. The family suggested that I should leave because they feared that they might lose me because of the existing problem, which the family faced."

OOA: (Speaking Arabic).

MARX: After arriving in Britain, he was detained for more than two months, then released on bail while his lawyers argued he was entitled to stay in the U.K. The current case backlog means many people wait years for a final decision.

Meanwhile, to discourage even more arrivals through dangerous routes, Britain's interior ministry had announced a partnership with the African nation of Rwanda. In theory, it would mean individuals, including OOA, could have their asylum claims heard in central East Africa. In practice, the plans soon faced courtroom challenges from committed human rights and immigration lawyers like Sophie Lucas.

SOPHIE LUCAS: We are really talking about highly vulnerable individuals who've been through unimaginable trauma. And for any of these individuals who have sought refuge in the U.K., it is deeply distressing to have this prospect of being removed to a country where they have no connection and where their fundamental rights may not be respected.

MARX: Lucas' law firm, Duncan Lewis, represents OOA and dozens of others threatened with deportation to Rwanda and has taken part in a broader effort, she says, to prevent the entire policy from ever taking legal effect.

LUCAS: We're seeking to ensure that none of our clients are removed to Rwanda and that the decisions to remove them are quashed and a declaration that the policy itself is unlawful.

MARX: After a series of successful filings on behalf of would-be deportees, the first aircraft charted for a deportation flight this summer left the U.K. with not a single passenger. Critics of the policy were pleased at the setback, but many, like Clare Moseley of migrant support group Care4Calais, say the proposals should still be abandoned entirely.

CLARE MOSELEY: This policy is a brutal and terrifying policy for the U.K. to follow. We have a good reputation, I believe, for - you know, for human rights and for fairness. And to see the U.K. going down this route is deeply distressing and counter to everything that I grew up believing about my country.

MARX: The High Court in London will rule not on the morality of this policy, but instead its lawfulness. That decision could have significant consequences for asylum-seekers like OOA, as he seeks to rebuild a new life in Britain.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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