Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) urges the UK to comply with its international obligations to safeguard and advance the rights of people on the move. The conservative party wants to return Albanian asylum seekers amid Labour’s calls for an “unlawful” blanket policy to fast-track asylum applications. Calais Group agreed on closer cooperation between the UK and European counterparts to tackle “illegal migration”. Union denounce UK France deal as “doomed to fail”, as more lives are lost on the channel. Asylum seekers continue to report of inhumane conditions in Home Office hotels.

A “significant regression in the UK’s protection of rights of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers through “the expansion of inadmissibility rules for asylum claims, the pursuit of removals to Rwanda, and the criminalisation of asylum seekers arriving irregularly” is highlighted in a report following the visit of Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights, to the UK. The commissioner also underlines that the UK’s ill-treatment of people on the move is a “long-standing concern” and warns against the consequences of the “stigmatising” “dehumanising” public rhetoric against people crossing the channel. The Commissioner calls on the UK government to ” ensure that its overall approach to asylum and migration fully complies with its obligations under international refugee and human rights law” and to refrain from introducing and implementing measures that put lives of people on the move at risk including the Rwanda Externalisation Scheme and pushbacks. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also points out  the current rhetoric, saying: “When we fail to challenge the harmful rhetoric that refugees are the cause of this country’s evils, that they should be treated as problems, not people, [and as] invaders to be tackled and deterred, we deny the essential value and dignity of fellow human beings”. He added that the asylum system suffers from “chronic dysfunction” and “cruelty” and urged the government to ensure that the system “balances effective, accurate and clear control with compassion and dignity, a system which is based in our history and proper moral responsibilities”. Welby, further denounced the “immoral” Rwanda policy, saying that that it was “not a solution – it is a mistake. It will be a failure”. Moreover, MP Jeremy Corbyn wrote an op-ed on International Day for Human Rights demanding the UK government to reflect on its own inaction and complicity in violations of the “most vulnerable”- refugees. Corbyn denounced the term “illegal” migrants, adding: “The legal right to seek asylum is set out in international law and in UK law. These are desperate people trying to get to a place of safety. We should bring them to a place of safety and look after them after that — let them contribute to our society”.

The UK continues explore ways to “properly resource” its “broken” asylum system and deal with the “chaotic” backlog including fast-tracking the controversial removal of Albanian migrants, funding hundreds more caseworkers as well as the UK-France deal on channel crossings. The number of people awaiting an initial decision on their application is standing at 143,377 and only one per cent of more than 9,076 Albanian asylum applications have been processed this year. Consequently, PM Rishi Sunak is about to implement a new set of “aspirational policies” including making changes on laws to “criminalise and then remove tens of thousands of people” who arrive to the UK through the channel and to rewrite “modern slavery laws”. “I said enough is enough, and I mean it. And that means I am prepared to do what must be done. So early next year we will introduce new legislation to make unambiguously clear that if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here”. In response to Sunak’s announcement, UNHCR appealed to the UK to uphold its international legal obligations, stating: “The announced proposal to first detain, and then either return asylum-seekers to their home countries, or transfer them to a third country would amount to a denial of access to the UK asylum system for those who arrive irregularly,” further noting: “That approach would close down access to asylum in the UK for all but a few. This would likely result in refugees having no means to establish their status and place them at risk of forced return to unsafe countries, in breach of the Refugee Convention. It would also undermine the global refugee system at large and would be a violation of International Refugee Law”.

ECRE member Refugee Council stated: “The government has yet again shown it doesn’t have a workable or principled solution to address the appalling model of people smuggling and the dangerous Channel crossings”. And the opposition Labour party said Sunak was indulging in more “unworkable gimmicks” while pledging to fast-track asylum applications from designated “safe” countries such as Albania, Brazil and India and to eventually cut down the £5.6 million a day bill spent on Home Office hotels, without further details provided on the proposal. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper explained saying that this would practically mean “clearly unfounded” cases could be decided quickly as a way of clearing the backlog and further consideration would be given to “more complex” cases. However, critics find this fast-tracking plan is “unworkable” because it applies an “unlawful” policy of “blanket refusal” of asylum applications from specified countries and because speedy processing of asylum applications without proper resources leads to inhumane conditions in reception facilities. Meanwhile, ministers are about to announce a plan aiming at turning the disused and off-season holiday parks as well as old university halls into shelters in another attempt to reduce the use and expenses of the 207 Home Office hotels where more than 37,000 asylum seekers including more than 2,500 children are accommodated. This announcement comes out amid emerging reports of “appalling” reality in hotels where “torture injured untreated, children suffering weight loss, and pregnant women without maternity services”. “I was a well-known boxer and sports coach, but they did not let me fulfil my dream. I lost 18 kg within 10 months”, said Arish, an asylum seeker from Iran’s Kurdistan and an athlete. These poor conditions of reception add “trauma on trauma”. ECRE member Refugee Council warned that “prolonged, agonising stays in hotel accommodation is increasingly damaging to people’s health”. “It is our moral duty to provide decent care to asylum seekers – the home secretary, is pursuing a policy that tries to save money but ends up being expensive, ineffective and inhumane”, the Independent writes.

Meanwhile, people continue to cross the channel despite the ‘unpalatable’ UK-France deal. On 8 December in a press release, the UK government communicated that the “Calais Group” – interior ministers from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and representatives from the EU Commission, European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and Europol – met to renew “constructive” discussions on how to “step up cooperation to tackle illegal immigration across Europe and bring people smugglers to justice”. The attendees agreed on different elements including closer cooperation to “improve registration of irregular migrants and ensure rapid asylum and returns procedures”, “deeper cooperation with third countries”, and support of a working agreement between the UK and Frontex. On the same day, the UK marked a “further step forward” in delivering its deal with France, as French officers joined their UK counterparts in Dover to continue their operational training. However, almost 14,000 Home Office and Border Force staff represented by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) urged Braverman to abandon the high-profile £63m deal with the French as it is “doomed to fail”. In the letter, the union had called for a new approach that issues a safe passage visa to be given to refugees to avoid the perilous journeys made at the “mercy of organised criminals”.  On 14 December the BBC reported: “People are feared to have died after a small migrant boat ran into difficulties in the early hours in the English Channel near Kent”. Reportedly, the boat carrying 30-40 people is “thought to have capsized and there were people in the water” in freezing temperatures. In the afternoon it was confirmed at least four people had died. “These journeys take place because there are simply no alternatives for people from most countries, no safe routes to take to make a claim for asylum – which will more often than not be granted. The time for a serious conversation about such measures is long overdue. The Prime Minister has promised action. He must now rethink the government’s approach and respond in a more compassionate way that will actually address the issue”, the Refugee Council stated.

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