Boris Johnson acknowledged that Ukrainian refugees could be forcibly removed to Rwanda if they arrive in the UK in an unauthorized way.
But the prime minister insisted it was “highly unlikely” that asylum seekers fleeing a Russian invasion would be involved in his widely criticized policies.
Labor said it was “shameful” that Johnson thought it was normal to send those fleeing Putin’s bombs to Rwanda.
Mr Johnson is attending a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in the Rwandan capital Kigali where he will hold talks with the Prince of Wales on Friday after Charles reportedly criticized the policy as “terrible”.
The human rights situation in Rwanda raises concerns about a £120m economic deal, but there are no one-way flights for migrants yet.
The only circumstances under which people will be sent to Rwanda is if they arrive in the UK illegally and thereby undermine the safe and legal routes we have.Prime Minister Boris Johnson
The first was supposed to start last week but was based on legal issues.
In response to questions from reporters traveling with him to Rwanda, Mr Johnson said: “The only circumstances in which people will be sent to Rwanda is if they arrive in the UK illegally and thereby undermine the safe and legal routes that we have .
“I think that we are giving Ukrainians 130,000 visas, they have at least two very good routes to come to this country.
“But if you come here illegally, you undermine all those who come here legally. And this is crazy.
“So basically, I’m afraid the answer is, I guess yes, in theory it could happen, but I think it’s very unlikely.”
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “The British have opened their homes to those fleeing this terrible war and have made it clear that we must do our bit to help Ukraine.
“Therefore, it is shameful that the prime minister thinks it is normal to instead send Ukrainians fleeing the war, who arrive here without the necessary documents, thousands of miles to Rwanda.
“We have repeatedly warned that this policy is unworkable, unethical, extortionately expensive and could exacerbate the human trafficking situation. The Prime Minister should drop this now.”
Although the scheme stalled, it emerged that the UK had already made payments to Kigali, who had begun spending money to be ready to take in asylum seekers.
The Rwandan government said it had begun spending money to catch a flight last week that was canceled at the last minute.
Downing Street acknowledged that some payments were made to Kigali but did not specify how much or when, under a “confidential” deal signed two months ago.
The payments were made despite the lack of one-way flights for migrants arriving in the UK on unauthorized flights.
Asked if the payouts had begun, Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolanda Makolo said: “Because it was meant to get all the premises and all the other institutions you know to strengthen the processes – so it was done.”
Asked if any of them had already been spent, she replied: “Partly because we needed to prepare and we were ready to receive the first migrants on the 14th.”
The first flight was halted after a temporary injunction from the European Court of Human Rights pending a ruling on the legality of the scheme in the UK courts.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “The funding agreement with Rwanda is confidential. It is fair to say that we have made some payments under this migration partnership, that is correct.
“Obviously they need to do a number of jobs to get everything ready and set up.”
The ministers expected about 130 people on board, but legal problems reduced the number to seven or fewer on the day of takeoff.
A court in Strasbourg then issued an interim injunction barring the removal of the Iraqi asylum seeker until the legality of the government’s policy could be decided in British courts.