The controversial Rwanda bill passes its second reading and will go to committee stage in the new year amid concerns. The death of an asylum seeker housed on the Bibby Stockholm Barge renews critiques about “prison-like” conditions in Home Office accommodation amid ongoing channel tragedies. ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council flags flaws in age assessment methods currently in use and calls for more ethical and humane methods to determine the age of young asylum seekers.

Members of the UK’s House of Commons voted on 12 December in favour of the government’s ‘Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Migration)’ bill. Despite vocal opposition from various MPs, including from within Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s own party, the bill passed its second reading by 313 votes to 269. The purpose of the draft legislation is to overcome a recent ruling by the UK’s Supreme Court that struck down the Government’s plan to send migrants who travel to the UK by boat to Rwanda. While the Supreme Court found that Rwanda is not safe due to the risk of refoulement among other concerns, the legislation declares that Rwanda is safe. This runs counter to the evidence provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has spoken out strongly against the deal. The bill will now go to committee stage in the new year. Following the vote, the Prime Minister tweeted: ‘The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this Bill delivers. We will now work to make it law so that we can get flights going to Rwanda and stop the boats.’ Home Secretary James Cleverly delivered a similar message: ‘Parliament has spoken. We must be able to choose who comes to our country – not criminal gangs. That’s what this Bill will deliver.’ However, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described the public disagreements in the Conservative Party that had preceded the vote as “an ongoing Tory psychodrama that is letting the country down and that’s not going to stop” and called the latest piece of Rwanda legislation “a bill no one believes in”. Additionally, ECRE member organisation the Scottish Refugee Council issued a statement urging MPs to reject the bill at the next reading and including the following requests: the complete scrapping of the bill, more government focus on long-term solutions and investment in a fair and efficient asylum system that works for everyone; and compassion and dignity for people seeking protection. The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association said that it was “appalled” by the progress that the controversial Rwanda bill had made and expressed gratitude to the 269 MPs who had voted against it. Some influential figures from across British society including footballer and TV presenter Gary Lineker – who was asked by the  UK defence minister to stick to TV rather than politics – signed a letter ahead of the vote calling for the Government to scrap its Rwanda scheme and for political leaders to come up with a “fair new plan for refugees”. While the country’s defence minister asked Lineker to stick to football, the signatories branded Britain’s refugee system “ever-more uncaring, chaotic and costly”, and said that asylum policies were not working. Jon Featonby from ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council tweeted: “Much talk of the £400m cost of the Rwanda plan – but less of the much larger cost of the associated Illegal Migration Act that goes alongside it”, on which billions will be spent on keeping hundreds of thousands of people in permanent limbo. A recent report by the Refugee Council estimated that if the bill becomes law, between 225,347 and 257,101 people, including 39,500 to 45,066 children, will have their asylum claims deemed inadmissible in the first three years of the legislation coming into effect while between 161,147 and 192,670 people will have had their asylum claims deemed inadmissible but will not have been removed by the end of the third year. Additionally, between at least £8.7bn and £9.6bn will have been spent on detaining and accommodating people impacted by the bill in the first three years of its operation.

An asylum seeker died on the Bibby Stockholm barge that is moored off Portland on the south coast of England and houses approximately 300 male asylum seekers. According to several sources, it appears that the man took his own life on 12 December. A fellow asylum seeker told the Guardian that the man who died had been shouting in a corridor between 22.00 and 23.00, when security asked him to be silent and return to his room. “He was shouting at someone and complaining [saying] everyday this happen to me, the food is not good, and the environment… and the one line he repeated “I am not a scapegoat”, he said. Another asylum seeker said “This death has not come as a surprise to any of us. People taking their lives is a predictable result of the Home Office’s policy of putting people on the barge.” While Home Secretary James Cleverly told MPs that the death would be fully investigated, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which investigates deaths in immigration detention centres, has said it will not investigate the case because Bibby Stockholm is not a detention facility despite reports showing that the barge’s conditions are “prison-like”. Director of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, wrote in an op-ed: “Those onboard the Bibby Stockholm brave enough to speak out have said they feel like “victims of a game” played by politicians. It is a game that has appalling human consequences. We should never forget that” and referred to other hostilities in the country’s asylum system such as the Rwanda deal, the Illegal Migration Act and reception conditions. Freedom from Torture tweeted: “While we don’t yet know the circumstances around his death, we do know that this barge embodies this government’s cruel and inhumane policies, and now people seeking safety are paying the ultimate price”. Additionally, the Scottish Refugee Council underlined that “barges are no place for people seeking sanctuary”.

One person has died and another is in critical condition in hospital after a boat that was carrying 66 migrants got into difficulty in the English Channel during the night of 14-15 December. The survivors were taken to Calais for treatment and the French coastguard said that sea and air searches would continue. The Chief Executive of ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said: “This is yet another terrible and avoidable tragedy. These appalling deaths are becoming too common and there is an urgent need to put in place safe routes so people don’t have to take dangerous journeys across the world’s busiest shipping lane.” Migrant Voice also wrote “The answer isn’t more hostile rhetoric and harsh policies” and called for a system which treats those seeking safety with dignity and compassion, and allows them to access asylum without risking their lives”.

The Ministry of Justice announced in September its intention to introduce the use of X-rays on asylum seekers to obtain scientific age assessments. Later, it was reported that Home Office determines age based on physical features including the time of shaving. On 12 December, the Refugee Council issued a statement urging that the use of X-rays will not keep refugee children safe. Together with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium, and the British Association of Social Workers, they have highlighted key concerns around the use of biological methods, including their adverse impact on children and the lack of scientific evidence to show that they can provide the age of a person with any more certainty than the Merton Assessment. In an opinion piece by Enver Solomon and Prof. Andrew Rowland from the Royal College of Paediatrics on 7 December, they both stated “The current system allows officials to estimate people’s age based on quick visual assessments and to then send them onto either children or adult settings. Far too often, this results in children being made to go through an adult asylum system”. “Legislators have a duty to uphold the highest child protection standards, regardless of how a child came to our shores. An integral part of protecting children seeking refuge and asylum must be to acknowledge that the scientific methods proposed by the Government are harmful, unnecessary and unethical”, they added.

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