• The UK and France deepen their co-operation while being ‘linked’ to the number of Channel drowning increasing by 50% in 2023. 
  • The House of Lords, charities, expert organisations, and the Leader of the Church of England all call for a halt to the UK’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. 
  • Asylum seekers face accommodation constraints and mental health struggles. 

At a meeting held on 30 January, British and French interior ministers pledged to continue working together to tackle migration. The two ministers mentioned plans to “better manage illegal as well as legal migration”. The meeting came after the UK Home Office published its latest figures indicating that 1000 people crossed the Channel in January. More than 300 people crossed in small boats on 27 and 28 January. A recent report by Alarm Phone found that the recent migration pact between the UK and France is “directly linked” to the doubling of the number of Channel drownings in 2023. Alarm Phone reported that since the beginning of 2023, the number of deaths had increased alarmingly compared to 2022. Of the 29 people who are known to have died on the French-British border last year, according to Calais Migrant Solidarity, at least 13 lost their lives in six incidents related to sea crossings. This, as reported by the hotline, is significantly more than the six people known to have died in three incidents related to sea crossings in 2022. In the ongoing trial of an 18-year-old man who is accused of manslaughter and facilitating a breach of immigration after the boat carrying 40 people that he was allegedly steering began to sink in the Channel in December 2022, the court was told that people screamed: “we are going to die”. Calais Migrant Solidarity believes that the number of lives lost in their attempts to cross from France to the UK is higher. “Uncountable lives are wasted and suffer at the hands of the Calais border regime. There is no accurate count of how many people have died,” the organisation stated, adding “For sure there will have been more, their deaths ignored, the facts covered up or altogether unreported. Many already go unnamed, without vigils and protests, without families or friends to advocate on their behalf.” On 14 January, five people lost their lives trying to cross the Channel to reach the UK. These deadly incidents are a direct consequence of the new ‘Stop the Boats’ policy that is being implemented by France and the UK, according to Alarm Phone. In Calais, a man who was trying to reach the UK was found dead in the back of a truck on 27 January. Despite the ongoing tragedies, in a press statement,  the Home Office said “Our priority is to stop the boats, which is why we have taken robust action to crack down on vile people smuggling gangs, deter migrants from making dangerous crossings and, alongside our French counterparts, intercept vessels”. The Home Office continued to blame the deaths on “criminal gangs” rather than the lack of safe and legal routes. “The fact we have seen three devastating fatal incidents in three months highlights the unacceptable risks that migrants and criminal gangs are running in pursuing these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossing attempts”, it stated. 

Meanwhile, the Rwanda Bill continues to face criticism as it was debated by the House of Lords on 29 January. Despite concerns, the bill has moved to the next stage by 206 votes to 84. During the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said the bill was “damaging” to the UK’s reputation, to “national unity” and to asylum seekers “who are in need of protection”. Labour’s former home secretary, Lord Blunkett, called the bill “shoddy” and said it punished asylum seekers rather than smuggling gangs. Prior to the vote, 265 organisations, including ECRE member organisations the Refugee Council and the Scottish Refugee Council, called on the House of Lords to reject the bill. In their statement, they said: “The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill is a constitutionally extraordinary and deeply harmful piece of legislation. It threatens the universality of human rights and is likely in breach of international law, striking a serious blow to the UK’s commitment to the rule of law. It was not a government manifesto commitment – on the contrary, it will hinder the UK’s ability to continue to grant asylum and support to refugees fleeing persecution”. They also warned that the bill would breach the Good Friday Agreement, which commits the UK government to “complete incorporation” of international human rights law in Northern Ireland.“ There was further criticism over asylum deportations to Rwanda after the Observer newspaper revealed that several Rwandan nationals had been granted asylum in the UK in recent months due to the persecution they had suffered for being members of opposition parties. These details have raised fresh questions over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s claim that Rwanda is “unequivocally” safe for asylum seekers. The investigation has also seen details of a dossier compiled by a western intelligence agency that accused Rwanda of orchestrating a dirty tricks campaign to smear and undermine critics, including those based in the UK. Moreover, openDemocracy revealed that the “really beautiful” houses that former home secretary Suella Braverman claimed would house asylum seekers deported to Rwanda had already been sold. “The houses are for Rwandans and 50% is already sold. So if you say it’s for refugees, I don’t think so,” said the sales adviser at the real estate agency. 

Meanwhile, asylum seekers’ rights and state of mind are being ”toyed with” by the authorities. Several people have reported having received letters informing them that they would be sent to Rwanda. Many of them had started working on their cases until the Home Office admitted that the letters had been sent in ”error”. Speaking about the ramifications of the letters, the director of Refugee, Asylum Seeker, and Migrant Action, Maria Wilby, said: “The impact of letters telling people they will be sent to Rwanda is significant and cannot be ignored…to admit these letters were a mistake does nothing to mitigate the suffering of those who received them”. Furthermore, a senior official has admitted that 33,085 people who arrived in the UK by irregular means such as small boats will not have their asylum claims assessed as the government tries to remove them from the UK. The chief executive of the Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said: “We know people who have fled war and oppression in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, and Iran are already avoiding contact with vital services and face being exploited and abused by those seeking to coerce and traffic them…The reality is that the government’s plans are causing huge distress to vulnerable people”. One of the recipients of the letters, a Syrian migrant, said: “I was in despair when I received it and have not slept for almost a week thinking about what will happen to me if I’m forced to go to Rwanda”. 

The accommodation situation for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK remains uncertain. The Home Office has been housing approximately 400 people, including families, at a Walthamstow hotel while their asylum claims are being processed. On 19 January, the asylum seekers received letters informing them that they would have to leave the hotel in five days. According to the BBC, protests were held outside the hotel as the asylum seekers and members of the community called for the decision to be reversed. Meanwhile, the MP for Bexhill and Battle, Huw Merriman, organized a constituency meeting to discuss a Home Office proposal to open an asylum seeker detention centre at Northeye on the western outskirts of Bexhill. He said, “One of the key points I made to residents at the meeting is that the proposal for the Northeye site in Bexhill is for a detained and closed site only. This means that if the site goes ahead, those living there would not be free to come and go”. The site was initially supposed to be open. Elsewhere, a council in the northwest of England has resorted to providing sun loungers and air beds in a former school for refugees and other homeless people. Separately, Home Secretary James Cleverly has made an emergency request for a cash payment of £2.6bn after unforeseen expenditure on hotels for asylum seekers during the mandate of his predecessor, Suella Braverman. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, said: “The Tories have completely bust the budget of the Home Office through staggering incompetence and chaos but the taxpayer is paying the price”. 

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