Lessons from Australia: UK’s migration law set to repeat mistakes

Activists, lawyers and refugees see the UK repeating the mistakes and abuses of Australia’s draconian asylum seeker law.

People hold placards as they gather in central Dover to attend a 'Refugees Welcome' rally organised by Stand Up To Racism on the south-east coast of England, on March 4, 2023, as pro-and anti-migrant demonstrations take place in the town. - More than 45,000 migrants crossed the Channel to the UK from mainland Europe in 2022, surpassing the previous year's record by more than 17,000. (Photo by Susannah Ireland / AFP)
People hold placards as they gather in central Dover to attend a 'Refugees Welcome' rally organised by Stand Up To Racism on the southeast coast of England, on March 4, 2023 [File: Susannah Ireland/AFP]

Plans by the United Kingdom to detain and deport asylum seekers who arrive on its shores by unauthorised means, such as in small boats, is a replica of Australia’s notorious Operation Sovereign Borders, activists, lawyers and refugees in Australia say.

The UK’s proposed Illegal Migration Bill, they say, will be ineffective against people smugglers, like the Australian policy, and will also destroy the lives of people seeking asylum through indefinite detentions and a disregard for human rights.

Immigration detention in Australia is akin to “torture”, Ian Rintoul, a political activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, Australia, told Al Jazeera.

“Detention centres [in Australia] are commonly understood now – famously understood – to be the factories of mental illness,” Rintoul said, referring to depression and other illnesses many asylum seekers and refugees in Australian immigration detention have developed.

Though the UK says its bill is designed to stop people smuggling and push asylum seekers into safe and legal routes to enter the UK, immigration detention will be the first port of call for processing asylum seekers who arrive by irregular means in the UK.

Plans are now under way to convert former Royal Air Force bases in Essex and Lincolnshire into detention centres to accommodate those who will be detained under the UK bill, which does not specify a time limit on how long asylum seekers can be held.

Clause 12 of the proposed bill states that an asylum seeker may be detained for as long as is “reasonably necessary” to decide what should be done about their asylum claim.

This leaves the way open for indefinite, arbitrary detention, similar to what often happens in Australia, said Alison Battisson, an Australian human-rights lawyer and director of the Human Rights for All organisation.

“There will be a [movable] feast… which is: your detention will come to an end if and when we remove you or we make some other administrative decision that allows you to stay,” Battisson said.

This limbo is the main anguish of indefinite immigration detention, said Battisson, who works with refugees across Australia’s immigration detention system.

Immigration detention centres in Australia are also extremely violent and drug problems are prevalent, she added.

“In some cases, [some] detention centres are run by certain criminal gangs. So it’s an incredibly frightening place to be,” she told Al Jazeera.

“You have no any idea about your future”, said Hossein Latifi, a refugee who spent nine years in Australian immigration detention and was only released early last year.

“Those people, they never committed any crime. They came for safety and freedom and a better future,” he said.

Throughout his years in Australian detention, Latifi had no indication of when it would end.

Unlike an inmate in prison, he did not have a sentence with a set release date. The not knowing was incredibly damaging to his mental and physical health, he said.

“You become [a] very depressed person.”

“You don’t want to talk to your family. You don’t want to talk to anybody,” he said. “Just one question in your mind… when I’m going to be out of this place.”

Now released on a bridging visa, Latifi said he will never forget what happened to him.

“You won’t feel the same again that you felt before detention,” he said. “You don’t forget it.”

Legal incompatibility

Indefinite detention is illegal under international laws the UK and Australia are signatories to, but both countries have chosen to ignore their legal obligations.

In the case of the UK, the proposed Illegal Migration Bill breaks international and domestic law, yet the government is going ahead with its implementation.

“The government effectively admits that this bill is going to breach people’s human rights and the European Convention on Human Rights,” says Alison Pickup, Director of UK organisation Asylum Aid. “It’s also incompatible with the Refugee Convention,” Pickup said.

According to Pickup, the bill is “being rushed through parliament on a very expedited timescale”. This could be because the government wants to push forward a distraction from all of the other very real problems the UK is facing, she said, from COVID to the cost of living crisis.

“This bill is a piece of performative cruelty,” she said. ”We’re [also] going to have a general election next year. So the timing, getting legislation through, getting it passed, [is] potentially dictated by an electoral timetable.”

Deportations and votes

In Australia, politics has also been a key driver behind asylum policy.

Officially, detention in offshore facilities of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia is a mechanism for preventing people smuggling. But many argue this is just a front for an inherently discriminatory policy that wins votes.

Both of Australia’s main political parties, the more left-leaning Labor and centre-right Liberal Party, have created fear around asylum seekers arriving by boat and used tough immigration policies to win over voters, Behrouz Boochani – an award-winning author, former refugee and now political commentator – told Al Jazeera in an earlier interview.

A key part of Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders involves sending asylum seekers to a third country while their claims for asylum are processed.

The UK bill echoes this to an extent, mandating that asylum seekers be removed from the UK to a safe third country. They will then become the responsibility of the country that accepted them.

Australian lawyers and activists have argued that the UK’s parliament has not put enough consideration into how safe the countries to which they will send asylum seekers are. A similar lack of foresight has put refugees and asylum seekers in Australia in incredibly dangerous situations.

Tamim, a refugee, is being held in Nauru, a small Pacific island where Australia sends asylum seekers – along with Papua New Guinea (PNG) – when they arrive in the country.

The 35-year-old Bangladeshi political refugee has asked the Australian government for resettlement countless times but received no indication of when his immigration detention may end.

Life on Nauru, he said, is fraught with danger.

“A lot of [things are] happening here. The Nauruan people… don’t like refugees to stay here,” he said.

The abuse and neglect of detainees, in what human rights group Amnesty International has described as Nauru’s “open-air prison”, have been well documented, as has the danger of living on Nauru and PNG as a refugee or asylum seeker.

“Those places very quickly became extremely unsafe for the people being processed there,” said Battisson, “and that was because there was a perception by the local communities there … that the refugees coming there were dangerous.”

Tamim has been attacked and robbed by Nauruan locals three times, he said.

The police promised to pursue suspects but it has now been two years and there has been no result, said Tamim.

Ever more perilous journeys

The UK bill is expected to stop asylum seekers from making the journey to the UK on small boats like the one Tamim came to Australia in.

Rintoul said the bill will only give rise to the same people making different and more perilous journeys “to try to avoid detection”.

“We will perhaps see more people at the backs of containers at the risk of being smothered, smuggled across the channel, or they will be left in dangerous circumstances in refugee camps or other places throughout Europe,” he said.

Tamim did not have the luxury of applying for a refugee visa to Australia. He had to leave Bangladesh in a rush, with a people smuggler arranging a continuous route from his country to Australia. There was no other option, he said.

Latifi’s story was similar. He said everything happened too fast and there was no time to plan.

“I was just try[ing] to get out of that situation,” Latifi said. “So it was very quick.”

Rintoul said that if there were reasonable, formal ways to get protection, refugees – such as Latifi and Tamim – would not get on to boats.

“People don’t need to get on a small boat to take trips across the channel if there [is] a formal way for them to get protection,” he said.

“If there was a way that Britain took 10,000 people a month from France, people wouldn’t be on little boats.”

Source: Al Jazeera