Last month, the United Kingdom’s parliament passed the Illegal Migration Bill. The measure will have serious repercussions for those needing international protection. It violates the UK’s constitutional commitments, the Human Rights Act, 1998, and international refugee law (IRL) and international human rights law (IHRL)
On July 17, 2023, Conservatives approved the so-called Illegal Migration Act, the cornerstone of right-wing UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s campaign promise to “stop the boats” sailing across the English Channel. The bill has received royal assent and become domestic law. According to the act, anyone who enters the UK illegally after passing through a nation without persecution loses their right to seek asylum in the UK. No matter how compelling their situation is, they are prohibited from requesting refugee protection or making other human rights claims.
The act further mandates their deportation to another nation, where, despite Conservative claims, there is no assurance that they will have access to protection. It effectively establishes extensive new detention powers with little judicial control.
The government’s persecutory, racism-induced legislation won’t stop the boats. What it will accomplish is locking up tens of thousands of people at great expense, sending them to live in uncertainty forever, punished like criminals just for trying to find refuge. The House of Lords ultimately rejected proposed amendments providing for fewer time restrictions on the detention of unaccompanied minors, improved rights for victims of modern slavery and six-month delays in migrant deportation.
The Conservative government’s centerpiece legislation will stop most individuals from seeking asylum in the UK without authorization. It will send them back to their home country or a third country deemed “safe,” like Rwanda.
The act’s passing came at the same time as a barge meant to carry migrants and refugees docked near the southern coast of England on Tuesday. The government has justified the usage of barges, which maintains that they are a less expensive option than hotels. A record 45,755 persons crossed the English Channel in tiny boats last year, mostly from France. Around 12,000 people have come this year, which is about the same as in 2022.
Opposition politicians, as well as observers and civil rights organizations at home and abroad, have attacked the act to deport asylum-seekers as brutal, cruel and ineffective. The passing of the measure, according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk, poses “very serious legal concerns” and creates “a worrying precedent for dismantling asylum-related obligations” that other nations may follow.
At the earliest, deportation flights to Rwanda won’t begin for a few months; even then, their legality will depend on the Supreme Court’s decision later this year. A £140 million ($180 million) first agreement between Britain and the East African nation was reached last year, but the legal process has stalled the program. One year ago, the European Court of Human Rights issued a last-minute decision that prevented the first scheduled flight for the deportation of Rwandan migrants.
Dumping IRL & IHRL Obligations
Following its obligations under international law, the UK has long offered asylum to needy individuals—a tradition of which it has every right to be proud. This new legislation severely weakens the legal edifice that has shielded so many people, placing refugees at severe risk and violating the UK’s IRL and IHRL obligations.
Regardless of whether asylum applicants are individually at risk of persecution, they may very well have experienced human rights violations, including human trafficking or modern-day slavery. Persons excluded by the new act may have other well-founded claims under international human rights and humanitarian law; these are now prohibited from accessing protection in the UK. This includes unaccompanied and separated children. Removal under these conditions violates international law, due process rights, family and privacy rights and the best interests of the children involved.
Most people who leave conflict and persecution lack formal documentation like passports and visas or cannot get them. Rarely do they have access to safe and legal routes. The 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) acknowledges that refugees may be forced to enter a nation of sanctuary illegally. Many thousands of asylum seekers can now be expected to stay in the UK forever in hazardous legal positions if there are no workable removal agreements with third countries or there is insufficient practical capability to remove large numbers of asylum seekers. They risk being used and abused, jeopardizing their rights to health, employment and a reasonable quality of life.
In addition to posing severe legal issues from a global perspective, the act creates a troubling precedent for eliminating asylum obligations that other nations, including those in Europe, may be tempted to follow. This would bring inestimable harm to the overall international system for protecting human rights and refugees.
The UN shares the UK government’s concern over the increasing number of asylum-seekers who take perilous boat crossings of the English Channel and applauds ongoing efforts to improve the functioning of the current asylum system through quick, equitable and efficient case processing that enables the integration of individuals determined to require international protection and the prompt return home of those without a valid reason to remain. Unfortunately, the new legislation will seriously erode this achievement.
Regardless of their legal status, method of arrival or any other distinction, all people who leave their place of origin in search of safety and shelter abroad are entitled to the full respect of their human rights and dignity. The UK has a history of upholding its obligations under international refugee and human rights law. Such unwavering dedication as it had shown is more important than ever right now.
The international community must urge the UK government to reaffirm its commitment to human rights by repealing this law and guaranteeing that refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants and stateless persons have their rights upheld, protected and fulfilled without prejudice and in a manner consistent with the UNCSR. Asylum and human rights claims should be processed swiftly and fairly, reception conditions should be improved and there should be more accessible and available safe travel routes.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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