In the UK, questions arise around Sunak’s plan to “stop the boats” through an agreement with Frontex, Wales and Scotland resist the bill, and a poll finds that a majority of Brits have positive attitudes to refugees. In France, the same poll finds less favourable opinions, while families and a large number of children are left on the streets with no shelter. Those peacefully protesting are met with police violence.
According to government statistics more than 1000 people crossed the channel between 15 and 17 June and the total for 2023 has passed 10,500. In 2022 more than 45,000 people made the crossing. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, stated earlier this month that his plan to curb boat arrivals is working claiming crossings were down by a fifth and the number of Albanian nationals was down 90 per cent. Reportedly, Sunak faces critique from within his own cabinet over Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s plan to announce an agreement with the EU by end September to secure “third-country” co-operation with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex. Ministers are not convinced about the efficiency of such plans in the context of delivering on Sunak’s promise to “Stop the Boats” and fears they would expose Britain’s weaker negotiation position post Brexit.
Meanwhile, the UK governments highly controversial Illegal Migration Bill aimed at stopping people crossing the Channel in small boats was rejected by the Welch Parliament (Senedd) on 20 June, marking World Refugee Day. 38 Members of the Senedd voted to refuse consent for the bill, with 15 voting for. The bill defined as “cruel”, “callous” and a “ban on asylum” during the debate was backed by the Welsh Conservatives, arguing it would create “greater capacity” to provide a safe haven for those at risk of war and persecution. However, it has been met with widespread critique including by Great Britain’s national equality body, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – warning over the risk of breaching the UK’s human rights obligations. Ahead of a government-led summit on the bill in Scotland on 22 June, Kay Springham KC assessed the controversial Illegal Migration Bill for the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland (CYPCS), human rights organisation JustRight Scotland, and ECRE member the Scottish Refugee Council. According to CYPCS, the assessment revealed that: “the Bill encroaches on devolved areas of law without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. It finds that there is a real prospect of legal challenge to aspects of the legislation because they may breach the human rights of trafficking victims and unaccompanied children and young people, many of whom need refugee protection”. Further the opinion: “found that the Scottish Government, local authorities, and other public bodies can, and in some cases must, use their powers and exercise their duties to soften or overcome the impact of the Bill in areas of devolved powers in Scotland. Left unchallenged, the Bill will leave over years thousands of refugees and trafficking survivors completely bereft, detained, destitute or exploited by organised crime”. NGOs have strongly urged Scottish politicians to resist the bill. Acting Commissioner for CYPCS stated: “Urgent need for leadership & concrete commitments from Scottish government & public bodies to mitigate impacts of the Illegal Migration Bill at today’s Summit”. CEO for the Scottish Refugee Council, Sabir Zazai stated: “We call on Scottish Ministers to lead by taking practical and swift action against this unworkable legislation. We must protect not penalise those who have come here seeking sanctuary or who are trapped in exploitation”. Also, at ‘home’ critique of the bill continues. The UK’s top medical bodies including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatry, the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Faculty of Public Health has issued a letter to Home Secretary, Suealla Braverman and health secretary, Steve Barclay calling for an emergency meeting. The bill would give the Home Secretary new detention powers without time limitations, applying to both unaccompanied children and children with their families without the possibility of bail for 28 days and to be exercised in any place that the home secretary considers appropriate. “There should be no place for locking up children who have fled terrible circumstances to find safety in the UK. The evidence is clear that it causes horrific harm to their physical and mental health with lifelong consequences,” Prof Kevin Fenton, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, said. An assessment by ECRE member, the Refugee Council warned that this would affect over 45,000 children in the first three years of the bill coming into force, including nearly 15,000 unaccompanied minors. Another aspect of the of the bill, the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda received a new barrage of critique – this time from Rwandan political figure, Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza with first-hand experience of President Paul Kagame’s authoritarian regime. “Rwanda itself creates thousands of refugees every year and its government is yet to guarantee a safe environment for Rwandan refugees settled across the world to return home,” she writes, further pointing out: “Rwanda’s human rights record is not hidden from the world. The Freedom House has been rating Rwanda as “not free” in its authoritative Freedom in the World reports for years. Respected international NGOs have been criticising the state of civil liberties and political rights in the country on a regular basis. Persecution of Rwandan opposition figures and perceived dissidents, in and outside Rwanda, have made international headlines many times before”.
The government plans to house asylum seekers in barges, military bases and prisons have met severe resistance from local councils – some launching legal action. According to the Independent, it also turns out to become a very expensive ordeal. On top of the “huge £1.6bn contract handed to barge operator Corporate Travel Management, and money being paid separately to ports, private contractors, councils and health bodies” the “police have calculated they need hundreds of thousands of pounds for each new ship or site to cover additional patrols, and deal with anticipated protests by anti-refugee groups and extremists. The National Audit Office (NOA) has released a “highly critical” report warning that Home Office plans to make the asylum system more efficient are not on track. The backlog of pending cases is considerable with 173,000 people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim leaving the Home Office spending an estimated £3.6bn a year on asylum support. Head of NAO, Gareth Davies said: “Despite recent progress, the asylum and protection transformation programme is a long way from meeting government’s ambitions to reduce the cost and improve the quality of the service”.
Meanwhile, the increasingly harsh measures and toxic rhetoric from the UK government is out of sync with the population. According to an international survey of almost 22,000 adults across 29 countries British people had the third-most enthusiastic outlook towards refugees, just behind Spain and New Zealand. According to the survey 56 per cent of Britons believed refugees make a “positive contribution”, compared to 45 per cent internationally. In addition, more than half (54 per cent) of Britons felt that refugees should be allowed to stay, compared to 40 per cent globally. 84 per cent agreed with the statement that “people should be able to take refuge in other countries, to escape from war or persecution”.
On the other side of the channel in France just 39% of the population believed refugees make a positive contribution. However, a march organised by citizens and NGOs was held in Lyon in solidarity with asylum seekers – often finding themselves short of accommodation in France. “We use the umbrella symbol, which is a very simple symbol of protection, a white umbrella, to send the message that we must continue to host refugees,” says Jean-François Ploquin, CEO of Forum Réfugiés. “We have been welcoming asylum seekers for 10 years, because we were outraged that, even if they had a residence permit, they were not housed, and were on the street,” said Odile Lacour, one the citizens who opens her doors to asylum seekers. Lyon is not the only city failing to host refugees decently. Paris is routinely failing to care for vulnerable people the city ought to protect. More than a hundred people, consisting of families, women and some couples, are being expulsed from the carpark they had taken as a shelter. The NGO Utopia 56 explains that “these people have nowhere to go” and will have to resort to sleeping on the streets as there is no emergency accommodation available. Lately, emergency accommodation has become even more scarce in the capital: with the Rugby World Cup coming up this summer and the Olympics Games the next one, many hotels are withdrawing their rooms from the emergency accommodation scheme. French and Parisian authorities have also failed to care for the 700 hundred isolated children who were taking shelter in an abandoned school since the beginning of April. The situation had become “unmanageable”. Yann Manzi, co-founder of Utopia 56, told InfoMigrants: “You have to understand that 700 young people living in incredibly cramped conditions in a precarious, overcrowded place can create tensions and lead to tragedy. We’ve reached our limits.” Adding to this, far rights groups had also demonstrated in front of the school and threatened NGOs over the last months. This unbearable situation led the children to go peacefully occupy the square in front the “Conseil d’Etat”, a French institution. The French police responded with violence: children were thrown out their tents, police fired tear gas at them, and arrested more than 30 people. At least 3 children had to be transported to the hospital in an ambulance. The group was scattered, and children were left to wander in Paris’ streets, finishing the night on the ground with no blanket or tent. This morning an NGO reported new abuses, police kicked people sleeping on the ground saying: “come on, get out of here, if you don’t get up now it’s going to degenerate and we know who it’s going to go wrong for”.
For further information:
- ECRE, UK: Sunak’s Claim “bill is working” Met with Questions About Failures in a Broken Asylum System, Home Office Offers Inhumane Accommodation Options to Reduce Hotel Use, June 2023
- ECRE, UK: EU to Strengthen Cooperation with “friends” on Migration Amid Ongoing Critique of UK Bill, Home Secretary Claims Migrant Labour Harms the Country’s ‘National Character’, Regulations Providing Housing Protection to Be Removed, May 2023