The “Illegal Migration Bill” passed its third reading at the Commons and will now go to the House of Lords amid widespread critique from experts. In the latest stage of the legal battle over the Rwanda scheme, Court of Appeal was told that Rwanda is an authoritarian state unfit for the reception of vulnerable people in need for protection. New reports from charities point out “shocking conditions” in asylum hotels and a segregation and detention-based asylum accommodation system.
289 MPs voted in favor of the controversial asylum bill in its third reading in the House of Common where the conservatives have a large majority, despite critique from some Tories including Theresa May who warned that the bill would leave more people at risk of modern slavery. “This government has sought to railroad this deplorable, disgusting bill through the House of Commons,” said Stephen Flynn of the opposition Scottish National Party. The bill will now go to the House of Lords where it is expected to face a strong opposition. Ahead of the Common’s reading, Home Office published data on channel crossings, backlog, returns and support to asylum seekers. 3,793 people made the crossings between 1 January and 31 March 2023 with Afghans making up most of the channel arrivals. “Afghans left stranded after the disastrously executed withdrawal in 2021 will almost always have a well-founded protection claim, but under the government’s migration bill any arriving by small boat on or after 7 March will be refused asylum” said Marley Morris from The Institute for Public Policy Research. At the end of March this year, 138,052 asylum cases were awaiting an initial decision. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised earlier to clear a backlog of nearly 100,000 asylum claims by the end of 2023. The Home Office would need to make nearly 25,000 decisions a quarter to meet this promise. The Detention Forum pointed out the Home Office’s failure to publish an impact assessment of the bill adding it is “another example of its lack of transparency and undermines confidence in any realistic expectations for the legislation”. The government also published a factsheet on safe and legal routes, stating its “commitment” to provide routes to safety for vulnerable people but “must first grip the rise in illegal migration and stop the boats”. Jon Featonby from ECRE member, the Refugee Council denounced the government’s failure to mention the reduced resettlement which is “no where near its pre-covid levels” and the limiting of family reunification rights under the Nationalities and Borders Act.
Meanwhile, the “Illegal Migration Bill” has been widely criticised and questioned over its workability and legitimacy. Council of Europe’s migration committee has accused the government of a “willful distortion of core UN and European conventions which the UK itself contributed to designing” , further stating “Its provisions would jeopardise the right to an effective remedy, breach the non-refoulement principle, endanger victims of forced labour and modern slavery, and strip international protection seekers of their right to seek asylum, with no regard for the best interest of the child”. In a letter sent to the Commons and Lords, the Council Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, stated: “It is essential that parliamentarians prevent legislation that is incompatible with the United Kingdom’s international obligations being passed”, adding: “Passing the Bill would add to the already significant regression in the protection of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the UK in the last few years”. In an unusual intervention before the Commons, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said that Sunak’s asylum plans risk breaching international rights obligations, pointing to “particularly worrying“ provisions “providing for the detention of children and pregnant women, and removing protections for victims of trafficking and modern slavery” and noting that “Effective, rights-compliant action is needed to ensure more lives are not lost on dangerous Channel crossings”. Children’s Commissioner for the UK expressed concerns about provisions in the Bill for children and young people, especially about the safety of unaccompanied children who are housed in asylum accommodation while awaiting transfer to local authorities. A report by the Refugee Council and Barnardo’s revealed that the bill would allow the government to detain any unaccompanied child arriving to the UK irregularly unless MPs persuade ministers to exclude them from the legislation. However, facing a threat of rebellion from backbench Conservative MPs Ministers have pledged to only detain refugee children in “exceptional circumstances” and the Home Office confirmed “it would put forward a further amendment to the illegal migration bill limiting the amount of time an unaccompanied child can be held”. Charities also warn of the bill’s damaging impact on the mental health of people who already survived trauma. “We should never ignore the impact of separation from families, xenophobia, exclusion from work and other social activity, perilous journeys and experience of conflict, persecution and exploitation. Everyone should have access to appropriate care and support – not hostile rhetoric, alienating policies and even denying their right to seek asylum”, Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, stated. The Bishop of Durham denounced the legislation saying that the Government is “abdicating its moral and legal” duties to protect those fleeing persecution. Meanwhile, a large number of asylum caseworkers are quitting Home Office fearing being forced to act illegally under the new bill. “You cannot strip human rights from people in a country in which we have the Human Rights Act and have signed the Refugee Convention. You can’t do this kind of **** and still pretend that you are legal”, a caseworker said.
The Court of Appeal began a four-day hearing on 24 March to challenge the Rwanda deal. Lawyers representing migrants threatened with removal told the court that Rwanda is not a safe country for asylum seekers and that the High Court was wrong to declare the scheme lawful adding that the court failed to properly investigate the conditions in the ‘authoritarian state’ of Rwanda that “imprisons, tortures and murders opponents”. However, lawyers representing the British government defended the deal stating that the deal is “subject to an exacting set of monitoring arrangements” including by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). A lawyer representing UNHCR said in written arguments submitted to the court that the deal will “expose asylum-seekers to a real risk of breaches of the Refugee Convention,”. “No matter what the courts decide, this scheme and the ‘refugee ban bill’ are unacceptable and contrary to the compassion we should be showing to people who need our help”, said Head of charity Freedom from Torture. Meanwhile, more than 830 UK health professionals and representatives from leading medical bodies signed a letter to the prime minister expressing “grave concerns” that the Rwanda plan will cause “catastrophic mental and physical harm” to people seeking safety. “Subjecting people seeking sanctuary in the UK, many of whom have mental health conditions and have histories of torture, trafficking and trauma, to such an inhumane process is a matter of significant concern for the medical community”. Besides, Prof Elspeth Webb warns that refugees sent to Rwanda are at a high risk of a deadly malaria variant.
A report by Refugee Action reveals that “the government is running a system of de-facto detention and segregation of people in the current asylum accommodation system”. The report points out the increased profit generated by the Government’s private contractors from the detention of asylum seekers. The charity urged the government to house people seeking asylum in high-quality and appropriate accommodation in communities and work with and fund local authorities and NGOs to support in addressing the crisis in social housing. Another report by charity Migrant Voice unveils “shocking conditions worse than prison” in asylum hotels. Asylum seekers have been forced to live for a year in windowless rooms smaller than prison cells, served food so dire it is blamed for causing diabetes, and have spent days in their underwear because they only have one change of clothes. The charity shared repeated accounts of overcrowding, “filthy rooms”, abusive and obstructive staff and “dangerously erratic” healthcare, while the UK’s Migration Minister Robert Jenrick described the hotels as “luxurious. Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan refugees brought to the UK during the Kabul evacuation will be evicted from their Home Office hotels with no offer of housing. A letter seen by The Independent reads that the government asks the Afghan refugees to start searching for a private accommodation. “This is not how those who fled the Taliban and were promised a warm welcome in the UK should be treated”, the Refugee Council said.
More people from Sudan are expected to take the small boats to arrive in the UK as a result of the conflict in their country. Sudanese people are already the eighth-highest nationality using the channel route. Almost 4,000 Sudanese small-boat migrants have crossed the English Channel since 2020. But Home Secretary Suella Braverman said that any Sudanese arriving on small boats will face deportation, detention and removal to Rwanda. “There is no good reason for anybody to get into a small boat and cross the channel in search of a life in the UK”, Braverman said, adding that people wishing to apply for asylum in the UK can do so through UNHCR offices in Sudan. UNHCR responded to Braverman’s remarks underlining that there is “no mechanism to claim asylum in the UK through UNHCR and no asylum visa or queue for the UK”. The Refugee Council said most people in Sudan have “no safe route to the UK” and that the government should share responsibility for those fleeing with nations that lack capacity. Meanwhile, Migration Minister Robert Jenrick claimed that the “values and lifestyles” of people crossing the Channel in small boats “threaten the UK’s social cohesion”. “Excessive uncontrolled migration threatens to cannibalise the compassion that marks out the British people”. His comments have been described as “dog-whistling to the far right”.
For further information:
- ECRE, UK: Rwanda Scheme Failing Promises a Year After Announcement, Conservatives Want to Take Greece’s “strict but fair” Policies as an Example, NGOs Urging Prime Minister to Scrap Plans for Asylum Camps at Military Bases and Ferries, 22 April 2023
- ECRE, UK: Home Secretary’s On “Showboat Trip” to Rwanda to Discuss Deportations, “Stop the Boats” Bill Under Critique from Tories, Private Firms Making Increased Profits from Asylum Hotels, 24 March 2023