In the 66 pages of its new “Illegal Migration Bill”, the UK is tearing apart the international refugee law through an impoverished, short-term, and incorrect view of both human mobility and asylum.
On Tuesday 7th March 2023, the Home Secretary introduced a new bill to make arrangements for the removal of a person if they entered the United Kingdom without permission, on or after that day, travelling through a safe third country en route to the UK. The Bill promises to detain and 'swiftly remove' people who arrive in the UK irregularly, as well as their family members, including children. They will be sent back to their home country, if it is deemed safe, or to another third country, such as Rwanda.
The law, also framed by the Government as “Stop the Boats” Bill, clearly ignores, according to the Home Office’s own data, the vast majority of people arriving in small boats over the Channel would be accepted as refugees if their asylum claims were heard and determined. Most people fleeing wars and persecution are unable to access the required passports and visas, which labels refugees as “illegal” based on their forced method of arrival. This label assumes that they had the option to enter regularly but chose not to, which gravely distorts the fundamental facts.
The memorandum justifies this distortion by saying that “radical solutions” are required to stop the crossings, including the possibility to remove unaccompanied children in limited circumstances and a permanent ban from returning and ever acquiring British citizenship for all people arriving without permission. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention explicitly acknowledges that refugees may be compelled to enter a country irregularly to seek asylum and must not be penalized for that, but through this new proposal, the UK is imposing life-long punishments on migrants and asylum seekers, in particular.
If passed, the legislation would provide a green light for refoulement and, in the words of the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), “would amount to an asylum ban.” The Bill would extinguish the right to seek asylum in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly – basically everyone – no matter how compelling their claim or strong their need for protection may be.
There won’t be any chance for a vulnerable person, even for potential victims of modern-day slavery or human trafficking, to challenge their removal, no matter their age, sex, or past. They will only have a week, potentially from a place of detention, to bring, develop and prove the real risk of “serious and irreversible harm” if they were sent back home or to a third country, without any external support. All other legal challenges to removal, including those on human rights grounds, would only be considered by the UK Courts after the person is removed from the UK.
The Government suggests that, by “ending” illegal immigration as a route to asylum, it will better support people coming through fair, safe, and legal routes. However, such routes do not exist. At present, safe regular pathways to the UK are open only to Ukrainian refugees and a short number of Afghan refugees, but they are severely limited and, intended to complement, rather than substitute, asylum.
Despite the fact that the English Channel is one of the busiest navigation routes in the world, making the short voyage extremely dangerous, more than 45,000 people entered the UK via Channel crossings last year, nearly doubling the figure of 2021. Yet the increase in the number of arrivals did not raise any reasoning from the UK government beyond the pressure of making the Channel “unviable”. There are multiple reasons behind this rise that, if analyzed effectively, could bring different and more sustainable alternatives.
First, Britain’s failure to establish safe and legal routes to claim asylum in the country is a contributing factor to the escalating numbers. It is the same for the other European countries but, since the UK is no longer part of the Dublin III Regulation, asylum seekers, including those who might have lost their case in France or other Member States, may wish to lodge an asylum application there without the risk of being relocated or fall under the Dublin Unity controls.
A further reason is that France reportedly subjects migrants and asylum seekers to degrading treatment, including police harassment, summary rejection at the French-Italian border, and restricted access to protection and essential services. It’s likely that migrants and asylum seekers decide to leave French soil, especially the area around Calais that see repeated mass eviction operations, near-daily police harassment, and restrictions on the provision of and access to humanitarian assistance, to cross the nearby Channel and live a better life.
A third explanation can be found in the British colonial past and people’s natural desire to seek familiar environments. The English language itself can be an incentive, but also that in the UK there are considerable Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities as well as people with Nigerian and Caribbean backgrounds. Apart from a feeling of home through food, music, language and traditions, these communities may also provide recently-arrived migrants and asylum seekers with accommodation, job opportunities, and a sense of belonging they cannot find in other EU countries.
While the reasons why people might want to go to the UK are very different according to each individual, looking at these three basic explanations outlines a very different roadmap to navigate the field of human mobility. One that sees more legal routes concretely opened for both asylum seekers and migrants, that needs more cooperation and “shared responsibility” with the European Union, and demands more consideration of migrants and asylum seekers as humans to listen to and even rely on to develop durable solutions.
The UK has failed so far to adequately respond to the surge in arrivals via the English Channel. Instead of facing the present time and its global demands, it tries to flee from it and hide, containing arrivals on unlawful grounds, financing the building of a detention center for migrants in France, and ultimately dilapidating its core international obligations.
The whole sense of the right to seek asylum is to recognize that refugees have legitimate reasons for entering or being present in a country contrary to its immigration rules and to protect them nonetheless. Up to now, the UK has no arrangements in place that would enable the transfer of asylum-seekers to safe third countries, as even the agreement with Rwanda, ruled lawful in December 2023, is currently under appeal. In practice, the new “Illegal Migration Bill” will lead to tens of thousands of asylum seekers being trapped for an indefinite period in limbo waiting for their lives to go on, still on British soil, but outside the asylum system and inside detention centers.