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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his controversial migrant deal with Rwanda on a visit to the country Thursday, telling critics to "keep an open mind".
On the first day of a trip to Kigali -- which is hosting a Commonwealth summit this week -- he also heaped praise on Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the achievements of the east African country, despite widespread concerns about its human rights record.
The UK-Rwanda scheme, which involves Britain deporting asylum seekers to the east African country located thousands of miles away, has provoked a storm of outrage.
But Johnson told reporters: "The critics need to keep an open mind about the policy."
"What the critics of the policy need to understand, and I have seen loads and loads of criticism, is that Rwanda has undergone an absolute transformation in the last couple of decades," said the British leader.
He held talks with Kagame about the deal and other issues, including the war in Ukraine, his office said.
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Rights groups, church leaders and the United Nations have denounced the migrant arrangement, which has threatened to overshadow this week's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
One of the harshest opponents is reportedly the British heir to the throne Prince Charles, who has been quoted by the British media as saying it was "appalling".
Johnson said he would speak about the merits of the deal when he meets Charles, who is also in Rwanda as Queen Elizabeth II's representative at the Commonwealth summit, on Friday.
The British leader said it was vital to resolve the problem of "illegal cross-Channel trafficking of people whose lives are being put at risk by the gangs".
A first flight of a small group of asylum seekers had been due to take off from the UK last week but it was halted following a last-minute injunction by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Johnson accused critics of the policy of basing their concerns on "a perception, perhaps a stereotype, of Rwanda that is now outdated".
The country of almost 13 million people has been indelibly marked by the 1994 genocide but now lays claim to being one of the most politically stable and economically developed countries in the region.
But in an open letter to Commonwealth leaders ahead of the summit, 23 rights groups and civil society organisations said there was a "climate of fear" in Rwanda.
"Commentators, journalists, opposition activists, and others speaking out on current affairs and criticising public policies continue to face abusive prosecutions, enforced disappearances or have at times died under suspicious circumstances," the letter said.
It accused the 54-nation Commonwealth of mainly former British colonies of turning a blind eye to Rwanda's rights record, saying it risked its credibility and integrity by holding the summit in Kigali.
The Commonwealth summit is expected to see a tussle for the leadership of the body, which represents some 2.5 billion people or a quarter of humanity, and renewed talk about its future role and relevance.
Meanwhile, Johnson welcomed Rwanda's "moral stance" on the war in Ukraine, his Downing Street office said in a statement after his meeting with Kagame.
It said the two men discussed ways to address the fallout from Russia's invasion, including the sharp rise in food prices which has hit African countries hard.
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