UK’s (anti) immigration policies
A guide on what not to do
by Maria Inês Pereira
From the “UK-Rwanda asylum agreement” to recent declarations on women and LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers, the UK government has been an example of horrific immigration policies.
From the “UK-Rwanda asylum agreement” to recent declarations on women and LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers, the UK government has been an example of horrific immigration policies. Despite claims of trying to stop people-smuggling networks and prevent migrants from taking the dangerous sea journey, the cruelty of these policies makes it clear that the well-being of asylum seekers is not the government’s primary concern.
“UK-Rwanda asylum agreement”
On April 14th 2022, former UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the “UK-Rwanda asylum agreement”. It aimed to send to Rwanda asylum seekers who, since January 1st 2022, had entered the UK irregularly. As previously explored in the article UK-Rwanda: One Way Ticket, this immigration proposal looks to outsource the UK’s international responsibility using offshore processing.
Nevertheless, the first flight from the UK to Rwanda under this plan is yet to take off. Since this plan was announced, numerous individual asylum seekers and NGOs have firmly opposed it. Despite seeing several bids to stop the government’s plan being dismissed by the High Court, things changed in June this year. Again, individual asylum seekers, along with the charity Asylum Aid successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal. This time around, the plan was deemed unlawful. The Court argued that Rwanda does not meet the requirements to be considered a safe option. Nonetheless, they did confirm that the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers was not unlawful. While this could be considered a win for human rights, as it puts this plan on halt, it leaves room for the policy to move forward.
“Refugee Ban Act”
In yet another attempt to stop people from crossing the English Channel, the government introduced in March this year what they called the “Illegal Migration Act”.
Opposing this governmental proposal, NGOs have named it the “Refugee Ban Bill”, considering the cruelty and purpose behind it. According to it, people who arrive in the UK irregularly, having passed through a country in which they did not face persecution (even if briefly), will not be able to stay in the UK, being detained and then “promptly removed”, to their home country or a “safe third country”. It is important to note that there is absolutely no guarantee that people will have access to protection wherever they are sent. Moreover, sending people back to their home countries, from where they fled due to a multitude of reasons, certainly does not protect them from having their rights violated once more and also violates the non-refoulement principle. Under this principle, people have not only the right to not be deported back to where they fled from but also to not be deported to other countries where their fundamental human rights might be once again disrespected.
Both UNHCR and OHCHR (UN Refugee Agency and UN Human Rights Office, respectively) have condemned it, considering that it does not align with the UK’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law.
The UK government argues that asylum must be requested in the first country where people do not suffer any kind of persecution. This interpretation of the 1951 Convention suits the government just fine, as it would excuse them from giving asylum seekers protection. Besides, there’s a high possibility that asylum seekers will, once again, be trapped between governments unwilling to meet their obligations and would rather leave people unprotected. It is clear that both the “UK-Rwanda asylum agreement” and the “Refugee Ban Bill” are similar strategies only aiming to excuse the UK from its international responsibilities. Noticeably, it is clear that their only goal is to take fewer and fewer asylum seekers in, excusing themselves from protecting these people by just tossing them to others. We must also consider the time relation between the two policies. The Court’s decision to deem the agreement with Rwanda unlawful was made in June this year and the bill became law in the following month of July. This makes the connection between the two policies further obvious.
Four days was what it took for Rishi Sunak’s new “brilliant” idea to be evacuated due to being unsafe. Deadly legionella, overcrowding or the inexistence of lifejackets are only some of its problems. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) warned the government that this barge is a “potential deathtrap”. Intending to house around 500 people, the FBU has stated that it is only capable of taking 222 people in. Therefore, the firefighters have expressed concerns with overcrowding and access to fire exits. They described little space to house everybody, narrow corridors and only two main exits. Besides, after visiting the vessel, Councillors stated that there are no lifejackets onboard and that the closed gates could make it even harder in the case of an emergency. As if this wasn’t enough, a potentially deadly strain of legionella was detected on the first day people boarded Bibby Stockholm, August 7th, taking the authorities 4 days to finally evacuate them, on August 11th. New tests conducted on August 15th confirmed that the virus was still there. Since then, most asylum seekers were put in a hotel and now say that they do not want to go back. Anonymously, two of them described to the British newspaper, The Guardian, how life was onboard.
“We were very frightened when some of us began to fall ill. One person even tried to take his own life. We had no information and felt we were the last people to learn what was happening. When an epidemic was discovered, we were removed from the barge, and we’re now in an old and abandoned hotel. We’re still under a lot of strain, not knowing what will happen to us next. We feel very low.”
“The message we’d like people to know is this: we are tired of being treated like this. We cannot cope with these conditions. We are all victims of a game that is played by politicians.”
Experts from Freedom From Torture believe that putting asylum seekers back into water could lead to re-traumatisation. After going through such a dangerous and challenging journey like crossing the English Channel, going back to the water, especially with such inappropriate conditions, can bring back the trauma they’ve gone through.
Suella Braverman calls for the narrowing of the refugee definition
More recently, the UK government directly targeted LGBTIQ+ people and women, arguing that belonging to these groups isn’t in itself sufficient to claim asylum in another country. Suella Braverman, UK home secretary, questioned the UN 1951 Refugee Convention and called for a narrower definition of “refugee”. She stated that the interpretation of the definition has shifted from helping those who flee persecution to those who are discriminated against.
Let us remember that if people are unable to live their lives and choose their paths freely, they are not only being discriminated against but also persecuted. In more than 70 countries, people could face prison or, in some cases, even death penalty for being LGBTIQ+ people. There is no way to deny that they are being persecuted. Moreover, in countries where only women are prohibited from participating in society freely and their clothes or actions are constantly being policed, it is difficult to deny that they are not being persecuted because of their gender. Some feminist scholars have even described this phenomenon as gender apartheid.
“At the last minute as they were getting on the boat, Rasul called his sister and said, ‘We are OK here, getting into a boat, pray for us. We’ll call you as soon as we reach the UK. Don’t worry we have almost accomplished our journey.’”. This is a bit of the story of an Iranian family, one of the many who have lost their lives while trying to cross from France to the UK, back in 2020. Asked by The Guardian about the tragedy involving this family, one asylum seeker in Calais at the time said, “I have not heard anybody say they will stop trying to cross because of the tragedy on Tuesday.”. Another said “Everybody has been talking about the Kurdish Iranian family all day, but unfortunately our attitude about the sea is ‘maybe we will reach the UK or maybe we will die in the sea.’”.
For some years now, the UK has made one of its biggest main priorities to stop immigration, especially when it comes to people who cross the English Channel on a dangerous journey made in small and precarious boats. Every year, thousands risk their lives crossing the Channel, and many die in their way. These policies presented by the government do not “stop the boats” as they so eagerly want. These policies show how asylum seekers are used in order to achieve political success. People’s lives are not the priority, saving them from persecution or the sea is not the priority. Showing to some voters that the government is doing whatever it takes to keep people out of the country is the true goal.
Nevertheless, the previous statements made by asylum seekers show that no risk is too big when it comes to fleeing war, persecution or poverty, when it comes to ensuring a better life for people’s families. They come to prove that governments should not be looking for ways to push people back but rather creating safe passages, a fair, respectful, transparent and organised asylum system which safeguards people, respects their lives, and complies with the government’s international obligations.