UK and France finalised a joint-multimillion-euro agreement to stop people from crossing the channel. The new UK asylum bill passed to the second reading with the majority of conservative MPs voting in favor despite critique from all sides. Meanwhile, the professional body of social workers urged its members not to cooperate with the Home Office in age assessment warning of political interference.

A bilateral summit between UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emanuel Macron took place on 10 March a few days after the presentation of the UK’s controversial asylum bill. The summit, which aimed at reaffirming both countries’ “longstanding friendship and partnership”, concluded a new deal to address “illegal migration”. The UK and France are “partners in the fight against human trafficking, people smuggling and illegal migration, from the Channel to the Mediterranean and beyond”, the declaration states, underlining their commitment “not to manage the problem but to break it”. The two countries “agreed on a joint multi-year operational plan and a joint funding arrangement. On top of the substantial and continuing French contribution, the total of the UK contribution throughout the next three years will be over 541 million Euros. Besides, the UK has agreed to fund an increase of 500 officers in the Channel and invest in new infrastructure and surveillance equipment including drones, helicopters and aircrafts to intercept people attempting to cross. The UK will also fund a new detention center in France to “improve the number of returns and prevent the recurrence of crossing attempts”. ECRE member France Terre d’Asile outlined the failure of the ongoing strategies of deterrence saying that they don’t stop the crossings but only make them more dangerous causing more deaths. Accepting more funds from the UK under the name of “partnership” and through this agreement, France is “implicitly validating the shameful policy directed at people in need of protection by the British government, says Delphine Rouilleault, Director General of France Terre d’Asile.

The Illegal Migration Bill, also termed the “Stop the Boats Bill” has passed to its second reading in the House of Commons by 312 votes to 250 with the majority of conservative MPs voting in favor. Among other restrictive elements the controversial Bill contains provisions that will render asylum claims inadmissible if people have arrived illegally, with their claims instead to be heard in a safe third country as well as increased powers of detention. The bill will effectively reverse a ban on child detention allowing unaccompanied minors to be detained and removed. A potential return to large-scale detention of children and families raised concern including among senior Tories prior to the vote. “God knows what happens around safeguarding, and access to medical treatment,” a former minister said, continuing: “Could [children] be removed from the country without parental or family consent? The mind boggles. I think these concerns will start to come out in the coming days and weeks”. A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Illegal Migration bill will change the law so that people who come to the UK illegally can be detained and then swiftly returned to a safe third country or their home country. Unaccompanied children will only be removed in very limited circumstances ahead of them reaching adulthood and then only to a safe country, such as for the purposes of family reunion or to their country of origin. All decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis”.

Speaking in the commons, Home Secretary Suella Braverman claimed that while the British public is “fair, compassionate and generous” they are also “realistic”, adding: “They know that our capacity to help people is not unlimited”. She also said the legislation is needed as people arriving in the UK after crossing the Channel have “overwhelmed our asylum system”, before adding there has been “too much” immigration in recent years. However, the critique was severe from both public, politicians, church officials and NGOs. Hundreds of people gathered in Parliament Square in protest holding placards with messaging such as “migrants and refugees welcome here: blame austerity, not migrants”. MP Stephen Flynn, who attended the demonstration, said: “The Tories talk of invasions, of swarms … They’re lying, it’s as simple as that. They’re trying to beat down on people who they should be offering a helping hand to. Shame on them”. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn addressed the protestors saying: “This Bill basically criminalises anyone who arrives in this country in a very desperate state, it sends them off to Rwanda and puts them in a detention centre along the way” while urging the MPs to “vote against the bill all the way through”. Inside former  prime minister, Theresa May expressed concerns about the bill saying “what should be clear from this is whenever you close a route, the migrants and the people smugglers find another way, and anybody who thinks that this Bill will deal with the issue of illegal migration once and for all is wrong”. However, May known for introducing the hostile environment policy during her mandate abstained from voting. The Archbishop of York said the plan “amounts to cruelty without purpose” and is “immoral and inept”. Stephen Cottrell, England’s second most senior cleric, told the Observer: “The proposals of the Illegal Migration Bill … are clearly unworkable, but will restrict access to support for many legitimate refugees and victims of modern slavery, without even the dignity of having their case heard.” Additionally, more than 300 migration experts signed a letter in objection of the bill that “is not evidence-based, workable, or legal under human rights law”. The British government is prepared to consider leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) if Strasbourg judges block the implementation of the asylum bill, the justice secretary Dominic Raab has warned, adding that the government is committed to staying within the ECHR but could not “rule out forever and a day the possibility that we might need to revisit our membership”. However, the government policies are also facing scrutiny at home. A court of appeal judge has granted permission to a group of asylum seekers from conflict zones, threatened to be removed to Rwanda, to appeal against the government’s controversial policy on some grounds. The ruling considered whether the high court had properly examined if Rwanda is a safe place to send asylum seekers to, especially in the light of warnings given to the court by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR about the country’s poor track record of protecting refugees. Home secretary, Braverman is set to visit Rwanda to reaffirm her commitment to the agreement as the implementation remains mired in legal challenges.

In a letter to PM Sunak, charities, businesses, unions and legal groups stated that some of the language used by ministers could only “draw frightening parallels from history”. A warning also reflected in BBC football presenter Gary Lineker’s criticism of Braverman’s rhetoric as “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. Lineker, who was taken off-air after his statements has faced pressure from the culture secretary, the home secretary and two former BBC directors. Braverman, who has previously been criticised by a Holocaust survivor for the language used about refugees, claimed Lineker’s tweets “diminishes the unspeakable tragedy” of the Holocaust, calling the comparison he made to 30s Germany “lazy and unhelpful”. In the meantime, Lineker has also received enormous support from media figures, rights organisations and individuals, players and the Labour Party. “In truth, Lineker had violated not the BBC’s “impartiality” guidelines, but an unwritten national code” as the country “refuses to confront the truth” that it “has historically been more a refugee-making country than a refugee-taking one”, wrote Priyamvada Gopal in an op-ed for Al Jazeera. Andrew Stroehlein from Human Rights Watch said “The Holocaust did not begin with mass murder. That’s where it ended up. Genocides & other mass atrocity crimes start with words – specifically, with powerful people dehumanizing a minority. Once they are seen as less than human, anything is possible, even mass murder”. In addition, Lineker’s fellow BBC presenters refused to present Match of the Day in Lineker’s absence on 11 March and commentators declined to report the matches in support of his position. “It’s taken a brave football star to inject morality into our shaming debate on migrants”, wrote Will Hutton in an op-ed, adding: “In attacking the new asylum policy, Gary Lineker has left a stricken BBC floundering and shown the Tory right how it is misjudging Britain”. After a “remarkable show of solidarity”, Lineker was reinstated.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is recruiting social workers to determine the ages of asylum seekers. However, the professional body for social workers (BASW) has urged its members not to work with the Home Office in this field, warning “that this could lead to age assessment work being influenced by political priorities such as reducing immigration, with worrying implications for child welfare”. Ruth Allen, the chief executive of BASW said that previous statements by Braverman where she mentioned that asylum seekers pretend to be child to exploit the system “have undermined confidence that age assessments could be carried out in a Home Office agency that is free from political interference”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.