‘Demonising refugees’: UK plan to stop boat migration draws fire

Critics of the proposal say it goes against international law and will end up in court if pushed through parliament.

migrants and refugees
More than 45,000 people entered the UK by crossing the English Channel in 2022 [File: Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

The United Kingdom government has proposed a contentious new law that would allow authorities to deport people arriving on its shores via small boats across the English Channel that divides the island from France.

Several charities and human rights groups have criticised the plan – known as the Illegal Migration Bill – saying it criminalises the efforts of thousands of genuine refugees.

The announcement this week comes after the UK’s conservative government made stopping boat arrivals a top priority. Last year, the government made it a criminal offence for individuals to arrive in the UK without a visa or special permission.

More than 45,000 people entered by crossing the channel in 2022, according to government figures – a jump of more than 17,000 from the previous year’s record.

This year, nearly 3,000 people have made the dangerous crossing that varies in width from 240km (150 miles) at its widest to 34km (21 miles) at its narrowest.

In a summit held in Paris last Friday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron signed a deal to stop cross-channel migration, with London saying it will give France $576m over the next three years to help stop the boats.

‘New cruel bill’

Anyone who arrives on the UK’s shores illegally having passed through a “safe” country will be legally required to be removed. Under the proposed act, more than 20 countries are considered “safe” for refugees to be deported to.

“Whether these countries will accept returned refugees is another matter. As far as I am aware there is no agreement or arrangement with any of above countries. There will also be legal challenges in the UK courts,” Abdirashid Mohamed, a solicitor at Aden and Co Solicitors, told Al Jazeera.

According to Mohamed, the bill rules out the chance of many arrivals to seek asylum simply because they have arrived on British shores by “irregular means” – on boats.

If the bill is passed, the home secretary will have the power to detain and remove those arriving on boats to either their home country or a safe third country, such as Rwanda.

The law will also allow authorities to detain arrivals without bail or judicial review for up to 28 days. Those who are under 18, individuals deemed medically unfit to fly, or those at real risk of serious and irreversible harm in their home country will be exempt.

Even in these cases, the individuals will have a maximum of 45 days to remain in the UK before their appeal is exhausted. Authorities could then remove them.

“At the moment the bill does not shut the door on children asylum seekers. No doubt, should the UK government attempt to remove unaccompanied children in the future then such removal will face challenges in the UK courts,” Mohamed said.

The new bill will set an annual cap, set by politicians, on the total number of refugees and migrants the UK will settle.

“This government has spent the last few years trashing Britain’s reputation for providing sanctuary, breaking international law and demonising refugees. This new cruel bill is an extreme step in the same failing approach,” Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage, a charity that provides legal help to refugees and asylum seekers, told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve seen, even just over the last year, that making refugees’ lives harder and focusing on deterrents doesn’t work.”

‘Draconian nature’

Home Secretary Suella Braverman failed to guarantee to parliament that the law is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Of course, the UK will always seek to uphold international law, and I am confident that this bill is compatible with international law,” she told parliament.

Last year, the British government agreed on a deal to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, more than 6,400km (4,000 miles) away.

But, in a last-minute injunction from the European Court of Human Rights, the first deportation flight was blocked. London’s High Court then ruled it lawful in December.

Legal experts said the bill would face many hurdles in UK and European courts if passed.

“Due to the draconian nature it is arguable the bill is not compatible with international law, and in particular it is not compatible with refugee law under the 1951 UN convention in which UK is one of the founding members and also European Convention of Human Rights which UK also signed,” Mohamed said.

Gardiner-Smith concurred.

“We have strong concerns that this bill breaches international refugee and human rights law. Undoubtedly, proposals within this bill will be challenged in the courts,” she said. “We have seen the awful Rwanda plan be legally challenged over the last year, and that battle is still ongoing. Yet this government is trying to bring in more of the same ludicrous proposals.”

UK set to announce details of proposed law heavily criticised by refugee rights groups.
People are brought into Dover harbour on board a Border Force vessel after crossing the channel [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

‘Running from war’

Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from London, Abdulmalik, 23, an Iraqi national who crossed the channel in December with 10 other people, said he was not surprised by the proposed law.

“They don’t care. They don’t want to help poor people running from war. It is really sad when you see how they talk about us. But we have no choice. We will keep coming. Where else can we go?” he said, asking for his surname to not be used.

“If you remain in your country you will die. So, it is better to risk everything and cross into England even if you could die on the journey. I was with Eritreans, Syrians, Afghans. We are all running from war. Not a single one of us will have taken the boat if we had other ways to come to England.”

The United Nations refugee agency said it is “profoundly concerned”.

“The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances,” it said in a statement.

“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.”

Source: Al Jazeera