In the ever-vibrant competition to be the European country with the worst refugee policy the UK is attempting to grab the crown from previous contenders Denmark (see the previous edition of “Are we the baddies” – “Something rotten in the State of Denmark”, jewellery theft, “Send ’em back… to Syria”, “Next Stop Rwanda” and other hits) and Hungary (“Starvation as a deterrent”, “10 years of anti-refugee propaganda and we’re only just getting started”, “Look over there at THEM, not at me and my cronies pocketing EU funds”) or Greece (“Pushbacks as policy” “2 million Euro stolen from refugees (but NGOs are the criminals?)” etc).
With its Illegal Migration Bill (also known by the Government very professionally as the “Stop the Boats Bill” and by legal specialists as “an extreme assault on the rights of migrants and the rule of law”), the UK has risen above its competitors. Or perhaps “dropped below” would be the more apt expression, with “a new low” being the general assessment of HMG’s draft law. The Bill made it through the House of Commons and this week it created headlines again as it was in the House of Lords, the upper house of the UK parliament, for its second reading.
Leading politicians seem genuinely to believe in the politics of deterrence, even though it is thoroughly debunked. Despite already having one of the harshest asylum policies in Europe – no right to work for at least a year, widespread use of detention, below subsistence level assistance – people continue to seek protection in the UK. The evidence shows that they do so for reasons that most would understand, could they but muster a little empathy. Reuniting with family members is chief amongst them; knowledge of the language combined with the strong desire to work, is another. (And why is it that so many refugees do speak English? What immense historical injustice characterised by exploitation and violence could possibly explain this?)
But the decision has been taken to go lower still to stop people coming – please God just make it stop! In response to the arrival last year of 45,000 people on “small boats” – equivalent to 0.067%, of the population – the Illegal Migration Bill to Stop the Boats contains a raft of unedifying measures to assuage the headbangers.
Under the Bill, almost all people seeking protection in the UK will be unable to even make an asylum claim – their applications will be deemed inadmissible. This is to be their punishment for arriving in what are termed “irregular” ways, even though for the vast majority there is no alternative. The scope of the Bill captures almost asylum applicants arriving in the UK, not just those crossing Channel, in what UNHCR has described as an “asylum ban” that “extinguishes” refugee protection in the UK. The Bill then places a duty on the Home Secretary to remove people to their country of origin or a supposed “safe” country, such as the super-safe Rwanda; swingeing powers to detain people are granted to Home Secretary; those not detained will be dispersed but kept in a situation of destitution (without assistance or work). It will be impossible to deport many of those affected, so they will be left in indefinite limbo with no legal status. The Refugee Council estimates that, after three years of the law being applied, between 161,147 and 192,670 people will have had their asylum claims deemed inadmissible but will not have been removed, costing the government between EUR 10 and 11 billion over the three years to detain or house them (conservative estimates).
When the Bill was launched, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in the capacity of Home Secretary manqué, his second job, spoke proudly of acting in the interest of the people, this man of the people, with his Blairite condescencion and his millions in the bank. Of course, the people referred to here are the Conservative Party’s people, banging down the doors of constiuency MPs to complain about the boats. The Boats! The horror. That segment of the population for whom this is the primary issue, the only issue – this “invasion”, this threat, this swarm. While the rest of the country have one or two other things to think about. Tory MPs continue to channel these sentiments in rage storms playing out across radio and TV, provoked every time someone criticised the Stomp the Boots Bill – oops, not Godwin again, hard to avoid with all the hyperbole doing the rounds – the Stop the Boats Bill.
Suella Braverman the Home Secretary, when presenting the Bill, appealed to an even narrower group, the strand generally known as the “swivel-eyed loons”, with her invocation of the 100 million people who are ALL heading to the UK. Oh yes. Her language was called out by a footballer, sports commentator Gary Lineker. If only he had her job. Seriously. In responding, she did show a touch of humanity – when she spoke about her own children and them being direct descendants of those who perished in the Holocaust, and how offended she felt by Lineker’s remarks.
The Bill has met with criticism from all sides. UNHCR, as we want to see it, has expressed its “profound concerns”. In the House of Lords this week, members have lined up to speak and to propose amendments. Vocal opponents include well-known activists such as – uh – the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the established Anglican Church (known as “the Conservative Party at prayer”) and the former head of the armed forces, Lord Dannatt (interesting to hear the military remind their civilian overseers of the importance of international law). Some, such as leading legal scholar Lord Pannick, have suggested rejecting the Bill entirely, due to its incompatibility with international law, a position also supported by many in civil society. The position of the opposition is to amend rather than reject, including for the constitutional reason that the House of Lords should not act against the will of the elected lower house. (It can be questioned whether the principle applies in this case. Thankfully the UK has a codified constitution to provide legal certainty…). It is also possible that the Bill times out.
The level of hysteria suggests a UK submerged, doing so much, while those Europeans slack, as they do. The statistics tell a different stories: in 2022 many European countries received far more asylum applications than the UK, including France, with twice as many applications in 2022 (156,103 compared to the UKs 74,751) and Germany with three and a half times as many (244,132). In both cases, applications are processed far quicker than in the UK and thus far more decisions were produced and backlogs are smaller than the UK’s 160,000.
But those coming here are not refugees, goes out the cry – and again, nasty old statistics counters. The protection rate – the percentage of people applying for asylum who are granted protection – is at its highest since 1990. In the UK, at first instance, 75% of people are granted protection, with more granted a protection status on appeal (which is an integral part of any legal process not a special luxury for asylum seekers). This is largely explained by where people come from – Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Persecution, Violence… It is impossible not to wonder: is all this happening because people actually are “genuine refugees” rather than because they’re not? Prominent examples of people who have arrived by crossing the channel because they had no other choice are an Iraqi who served as interpreter for the British military during the UK’s misadventure in his country and who has taken one of the many legal challenges against the Borders Act, and an Afghan pilot who fears for his life under the Taliban.
But what about the Albanians? Repeated by all the government spokespeople because the name of them – the Albanians… the dreaded… it is supposed to signal… something. An acceptable prejudice against a nationality. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama gave an astute analysis of the state of the UK, including its post-Brexit “nervous breakdown”. In European asylum systems, statistically Albanian applicants are very unlikely to be found to be in need of protection but it is not unheard of, which is why individual assessment is important. See for example the 1000s of women per year trafficked from Albania for purposes of sexual exploitation – in response to the demand for abused female prostitutes in countries including the UK. Bleugh, send them all back (the Bill allows the government to circumvent safeguards for victims of trafficking).
The Bill is riddled with potential legal challenges. As well as extinguishing the right to asylum, the attack on the rule of law has been highlighted. UNHCR states that it is in “clear breach” of the Refugee Convention. It is most obviously and flagrantly in breach of Article 31 which prohibits states from punishing refugees based on the way they enter a country; there is a strong risk of breaching Article 33, the cardinal principle of non-refoulement. Its application is likely to involve multiple breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
But the UK government’s legal advisors have surely explained all of this, and the Home Secretary cannot confirm compatibility with the ECHR (which should be assessed according to the UK’s Human Rights Act). It can be assumed that the UK government is seeking – indeed relishing – a protracted conflict with the European Court of Human Rights, believing it will provide benefits in the run up to the next election, now it can no longer fight with the EU over its precious sovereignty (which is of course being used so effectively, to stop the boats and re-introduce those blue passports, and all of that). How responding to the blizzard of litigation likely to follow is a good use of government time, remains to be explained. But add it to the costs to the EUR 540 million to be paid to France and the money paid to Rwanda in its efforts to support the UK to evade its responsibilities and shake “the magic money tree”, which seems to sprout just for anti-asylum measures.
The government has put up Robert Jenrick to defend the Bill this week, perhaps preferring haplessness to Braverman’s loose cannon approach, he was to be heard on the BBC seemingly accusing the former head of the armed services of being an “open borders” fanatic… The other talking point of the government is to accuse opponents of not having any alternatives, despite many being presented in the debates. What else could they do? Safe routes directly to the UK; fix the asylum system so processing time is not 4 times slower than in Germany; work with Europe rather than a country 6500 miles away, run by a canny provocateur in his last throes of reverse exploitation; try to avoid invading other places and selling weapons and thus causing displacement in the first place; … calm down?
Is it not possible that, even in the midst of a largely self-inflicted poly-crisis, the world’s sixth richest country, with 1.3 million job vacancies, one of the most multicultural countries in the world, might just be able to manage to host refugees, primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, Iraq – countries where the UK has a little history, recent and distant, rarely glorious – whether they arrive by boat or by plane?
Editorial: Catherine Woollard, Director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)