New asylum bill focused on people arriving in “small boats” allowing denial of access to asylum has sparked severe criticism of the government. Separately, fast-tracking plans received a mixed response and trade unions accused the government of complicity in far-right violence against asylum seekers hosted in hotels. Concerns raised over Franco-British deal.

The UK’s Conservative government announced on 7 March “ground-breaking” laws that would give the Home Office the “duty” to expel asylum seekers arriving on small boats across the English Channel. The Illegal Migration Bill, also termed the “Stop the Boats Bill” by the government, aims to fulfil the earlier promise made by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to detain and “swiftly remove” those arriving “illegally”. The measures in the Bill include a duty on the Home Secretary to remove people who have entered illegally; increased powers of detention, extending the time that people can be detained before they are allowed to apply to be released; prevention of people who arrived illegally from settling in the country and from returning if deported; restrictions on the right to appeal against removal and on the suspensive effect of such appeals (which would instead be heard after deportation); circumvention of anti-trafficking legislation; and an increase in the number of countries deemed to be “safe”. Most notably and controversially, the 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.

In a statement on the bill, Sunak said: “My policy is very simple, it is this country—and your government—who should decide who comes here, not criminal gangs”. The Bill was denounced by the political opposition, international organisations, NGOs, and the EU. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, expressed its “profound concern” about the bill, arguing that it amounts to an asylum ban, “extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection” for those arriving irregularly, further adding that the effect of the Bill if passed would be “to deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case.” UNHCR underlined that, “Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas. There are no safe and “legal” routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established. The Convention explicitly recognises that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.” Head of ECRE member the British Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, criticised the plans and accused ministers of shattering the UK’s long-standing commitments under the UN Refugee Convention. “The plans won’t stop the crossings but will simply leave traumatised people locked up in a state of misery being treated as criminals and suspected terrorists without a fair hearing on our soil”, Solomon said. He underlined the need for a new approach that replaces the current chaos and focuses on compassion and competence, and creates safe and orderly routes. Meanwhile, the European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson spoke to Home Secretary Suella Braverman and expressed her view that the new asylum bill violates international law.

In presenting the Bill, Braverman, claimed that the “law-abiding patriotic majority” has had enough of people arriving on small boats. “There are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws. Let’s be clear. They are coming here”, Braverman added. She was widely condemned for using what was termed “inflammatory language” by political commentators and popular public figures alike.

According UK Home Office figures, there were 74,751 asylum applications in made in the UK in 2022. This compares to 244,000 asylum applications made in Germany and 131,000 applications made in France during the same period. Germany and France also made more decisions than the UK during the same period, with around 230,000 initial decisions made in Germany and 134,000 in France, with first decisions delivered in 4 to 5 months, compared to 18,699 first instance decisions made in the UK during 2022, where first decisions take on average over a year. The vast majority of asylum applicants in the UK are found to be in need of international protection, with a protection rate of 76% at first instance – the highest level since 1990, with the main nationalities of people seeking and granted protection in the UK being Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Eritrea and Sudan.

In this context, under attack for the slow pace of decision-making and resulting backlog of close to 150,000 cases (compared to 636,000 pending cases for the EU and associated countries as a whole), the UK government has also developed plans for fast tracking asylum procedures for applicants from certain countries, according to a leaked document. The plans met with a mixed response, with right-wing commentators claiming that they amount to an “asylum amnesty”, while NGOs raised concerns about elements of the plan, including the use of a complicated form rather an interview.

In recent weeks, there has been an increase in protests organised by far-right groups, in some cases leading to violence, against hotels hosting asylum seekers. On 10 February, violent clashes erupted near Liverpool between the police and far-right demonstrators, “armed with hammers and fireworks” in a protest against the accommodation of asylum seekers in hotels. The Home Secretary indirectly blamed the violence on asylum seekers saying: “The alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence and intimidation”, while also claiming that “The welfare of asylum seekers in our care is of the utmost importance”. Labour’s shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said: “The shameful and appalling scenes in Knowsley show how far-right groups are using social media to organise and promote violence.” NGO Stand Up To Racism blamed the violent events on the government’s “scapegoating of refugees” and its “rhetoric of hate and division”. After the far-right demonstration in Knowsley, 13 men and two women were arrested for causing violent disorder. On 25 February, hundreds of protestors with contrasting views gathered in two English seaside towns. On one side, a group of refugee solidarity groups and individuals with signs stating “Refugees Welcome”, while on the other side, a group of far-right protestors chanting “We want our country back” and carrying banners that read “You are anti-white racists”. NGO Hope not Hate said that “far-right groups are trying to stir up tensions in local communities to further their own agendas”. Conservative Party deputy chairman Lee Anderson expressed sympathy with people protesting outside hotels, adding that “protesters were “just normal family people” with concerns about the safety of their community and described the violence as “understandable tensions”. Consequently, some of Britain’s biggest trade unions accused the government of being “complicit” in attacks on hotels and urged their members to “mobilise” against far-right groups. They commented, “We know whose side we are on when we see far-right mobs attacking refugees, and politicians playing the mood music”, adding that “the government is complicit in these attacks.”

Finally, on 10 March, Sunak is meeting with French President Emanuel Macron at a bilateral summit aimed at “resetting” relations between the two countries. A new agreement with France is expected, under which the UK will provide an increased contribution of EUR 200 million to France to support the latter’s efforts to prevent boats from setting off from the French coast. In the light of the Illegal Immigrant Bill, ECRE member, France terre d’asile raised concerns about the “complicity” of the French government in the UK’s “disgraceful” policies. According to General Director of France terre d’asile, Delphine Rouillault, through the agreement and by accepting new funding from the UK, France is “implicitly validating the shameful policy directed at people in need of protection by the British government.”

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