The deeply controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, dubbed the “anti-refugee bill”, has been adopted by the House of Lords. Home Secretary, Priti Patel has signed Memorandum of Understanding with Rwanda in bet to outsource asylum and is facing a storm of critique. The highly contested proposal of pushbacks at sea – forcing the return to France of people trying to cross the channel – has been withdrawn by the government just days before a judicial review of the dubious tactic in the high court. Whistleblower reveals that the notorious Homes for Ukraine scheme is designed to fail.

After much controversy and several rounds of rejections over a nine months legislative ‘ping pong’, the House of Lords on 27 April passed the heavily critisised Nationality and Borders Bill into law by rejecting a bid to ensure that provisions in the legislation complied with UK’s international obligations by a vote of 212 to 157. The passing of the bill introducing, among many controversial measures a two-tier system criminalising spontaneous asylum seekers arriving irregularly was met with an outcry from opposition politicians, NGOs and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Amnesty International pointed out that while the government claims to be breaking the business model of people smuggling gangs: “The Bill includes nothing to address any of the circumstances that make people seeking asylum vulnerable to the exploitation of people smuggling gangs and other abusers – instead, it sets out to make these people more vulnerable”. ECRE member the Refugee Council stated: “We are bitterly concerned about this cruel legislation that will undoubtedly cause harm”. In its comment on the bill the organisation writes: “The measures in the Bill do not come into force overnight, and much of the detail remains unclear. Refugee Council will be seeking to limit the harm of the bill, as well as monitoring and evidencing its impact to highlight its failings”. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi expressed regret: “that the British government’s proposals for a new approach to asylum that undermines established international refugee protection law and practices has been approved”.

On 14 April, while the Parliament was on holiday UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that she had signed an MoU with the Government of Rwanda for the provision of an asylum partnership arrangement. UK condemned Rwanda for human rights abuse just months prior to the signing. While key critical journalists were reportedly blocked from the Home Secretary’s trip there is no shortage of critique.  UNHCR express concern over: “the UK’s intention to externalize its obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers to other countries. Such efforts to shift responsibility run counter to the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention, to which the UK is a party. These efforts also run counter to the Global Compact on Refugees, which was affirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2018 and calls for more equitably sharing the responsibility for refugee protection. ECRE has condemned: “the UK-Rwanda dodgy deal,” as “Unlawful, inhumane, unworkable, expensive, based on false premises, an attempt to distract from political challenges”. Under the headline: “Deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda won’t work – and ministers don’t care”, the House, an outlet written primarily by MPs points out: “Offshoring asylum processing cost Australia over £1.7 million per asylum seeker, a hundred times more than our current system, and did not include the longer-term funding promised to Rwanda”.

Critique has also been severe from civil servants serving in the Home Office and the trade union Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). Home Office staff threatening mutiny and “deep shame” over the plan. Permanent secretary, Matthew Rycroft, failed to calm the situation at an online staff meeting with a source telling media: “It was clear from the briefing today that the views of staff aren’t being taken into consideration at all. It was a case of, ‘you’re civil servants so you have to get on with it’. There was little reassurance when it came to the ethical and legal concerns that were raised by multiple people in the meeting. And it still was not apparent how decisions on eligibility would be made”. PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, stated: “Since the announcement last week it’s clear that this government is ploughing full steam ahead with this unimaginably cruel and callous policy,” continuing: “we are in the process of talking to members to hear their concerns and gather their views. Our objection to this policy is absolute and we will be assessing our options as the union looks to challenge it”. Critique has also been raised by health bodies over the risk of unaccompanied children being send to Rwanda due to the flaws in age determination – according to experts there is no reliable method. Legal challenges are also mounting. Freedom From Torture has requested further information from the Home Office, with a view to bringing a High Court claim, challenging the policy’s legality. First steps have also been taken in another challenge by Detention Action, Care4Calais and the PCS union through a pre-action letter to the Home Office challenging: “the Home Secretary’s failure to disclose the criteria dictating which people seeking asylum will be transferred by force to East Africa and which will remain in the UK”. Lawyers representing an asylum seeker eligible for removal under the plan have lodged a judicial review application, on the grounds that removal to Rwanda would breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s announcement that the Royal Navy would take over operations in the Channel, the government’s legal department has acknowledged that the plan to forcefully return, people trying to cross the Channel irregularly to France, has been abandoned. Home Secretary, Priti Patel was accused of misleading parliament after details of the unpublished policy came to light during a legal challenge brought by the PCS, and the NGOs Care4Calais, Channel Rescue and Freedom From Torture, reportedly revealing that: “the high court judgment is that anyone in a dinghy who indicates they wish to claim asylum in the UK should not be pushed back but instead escorted to UK shores”. Channel Rescue stated: “The abandonment of the pushback policy is thanks to the tireless work of organisations fighting against reckless, unlawful government policies”.

The Home for Ukraine scheme outsourcing the responsibility for housing Ukrainian refugees to the British public has been severely critisised for delays, excessive red-tape and risks of abuse. Recently visa officials demanded that a six-month-old baby stuck for five weeks in war-torn Kharkiv with her mother and sibling should undergo security scans 800 miles from her home before she is allowed to fly to Britain. Now a whistleblower working for the private company responsible for processing the documentation of Ukrainian refugees and visa applications offers a possible explanation for the many problems: “We don’t really know what we’re doing,” said the source, continuing: “The system is designed, it would appear, for people to fail. They want to keep the numbers down. Everything they do feels as if it is to do that. I’ve even had a barrister and lawyers on the phone saying they couldn’t understand the system”.

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