I was putting my one-year-old triplets to bed. My two older children were asleep. The sound of the clock ticking caught my attention. My husband did not return home that day. He had been forced to leave the country to seek protection in Britain. It was a big shock as I now had to take care of five children alone. The government did not support me. I had to give up my job as a Mathematics teacher to be able to take care of my children. My family, especially my sister, helped me during this time and I was very grateful for her support.
We spent every night until morning hoping to see my husband again someday. When my husband informed us that he had been granted asylum in the United Kingdom and that we would be able to join him as his family, it was a big relief that we would be reunited soon. However the journey was not easy.
When he called us and told us he was homeless in the UK, I cried at night worrying about him. After a few days, we heard that through RAMFEL’s assistance, he had managed to get into a hostel.
Three years later after my husband had left, we finally managed to enter the UK with the help of RAMFEL and the Red Cross to join him. It was unbelievable. With the cooperation and kindness of our caseworker at RAMFEL, we were transferred from the airport to an independent house. It was difficult for us in the first few days, but we were happy to be together finally. My children have now enrolled in local schools. My husband and I have enrolled in our local college for English classes. We have received two laptop donations to assist us with academic work. We have also gotten some bicycle donations through The Bike Project to make our travel cheaper and easier.
My husband and I were teaching Mathematics at university in my home country, Iran. Our goals were only half-complete. We will not give up as God is always with us. We thank God every day that we are all here together safely and that he has led us to good and kind organisations like RAMFEL. We intend to return to our previous work with love and continue to teach in England. We hope that we will be able to pass the equivalent course for Teaching here in the UK so that we are able to teach again.
I will write my unwritten book with you earthly angels so that everyone will know that we came to the UK to love with liberation. I wish one day I could give all the love I received from you to all human beings and wish that there was no place in the world of discrimination and injustice, war and bloodshed, and that we had a world full of love and happiness.
Yesterday evening the government’s plans to exile 7 asylum seekers to Rwanda were thwarted at the last minute. This was after intervention from the European Court of Human Rights, which issued an injunction preventing the removal of at least 1 of the 7 men, an Iraqi national suspected of being a torture survivor. Following this, the remaining 6 men were removed from the flight in batches as their lawyers sought and obtained similar injunctions.
That it took intervention from the European Court is unfortunate, not least because the government will inevitably use this as a pretext to launch further attacks on the Court and the UK’s continued membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court’s intervention here though evidences just what was at stake for the men on that flight, with such interventions only taking place when there is a risk of serious human rights violations. Such risks were always obvious, and the reprehensible plan managed to unite forces as disparate as refugee rights NGOS, the monarchy and religious leaders of all faiths in opposition to it.
What was even more disheartening was the government’s determination to press ahead with this flight, despite them knowing that substantive legal proceedings scheduled for July may in any case have seen them need to bring the deported men back to the UK. This was performative cruelty at its worse, and it is difficult to conclude that last night’s flight was anything other than an attempt to intimidate and punish those who came to the UK seeking sanctuary only to instead be threatened with a one-way ticket to a country many wouldn’t have heard of and where their safety clearly was not guaranteed.
The cruelty of this policy was clear even before the government started indiscriminately handing out tickets to men detained at Gatwick and Heathrow detention centres. RAMFEL client, Taraki, was one of the first to speak out about his fears when news of the policy broke. For the men actually issued tickets, these fears must only have been heightened.
Despite all the heartache caused, it was inspiring to witness the tireless efforts of everyone who worked to stop this tragedy unfolding. NGOs such as Detention Action, Asylum Aid and Care 4 Calais challenged this policy in the courts, ably assisted by lawyers who evidently were working non-stop to ensure their clients were taken off the flight with barely hours left before its scheduled departure.
Beyond the legal challenges brought, the men faced with exile themselves showed incredible courage, many sharing their stories publicly. It is never easy for people to share such intimate information with the public, but putting human stories into the public domain undermined government efforts to present these men as scary boogey men or simply faceless numbers.
Finally, the actions of protesters who attended the Home Office and the detention centres also clearly made a difference and let the government know there is sharp opposition to this policy. Tales of men held at Heathrow detention centre who weren’t on the flight protesting on behalf of those who were was also inspiring and showed human solidarity in the face of adversity and cruelty.
The government has this morning announced plans to charter a new flight ahead of July’s court case, demonstrating that no lessons have been learned and that there is no genuine desire on their part to actually try and solve the problems that lead to people making the dangerous journey across the Channel. It will likely take another gargantuan effort to ensure no one boards this second plane, and yet more public money will surely be wasted on this performative cruelty. The human suffering for those given tickets – and those fearing they will – will be even more costly.
We spoke with Taraki this morning, who thankfully was not given a ticket for this flight. He told us how happy and relieved he was that the flight was cancelled, but was understandably shocked and disappointed when we told him that the government are already pressing ahead with plans for the next flight. We hope that in a few weeks’ time, we won’t be battling to get Taraki off a plane bound for Rwanda.
'Should we be exiled to an unsafe country where we have no ties, simply because we want to make a better life for us and our families in the UK, free from persecution?' RAMFEL and our clients’ response to the RWANDA Scheme
Many of us are feeling shocked and disgusted after the news emerged last week that the British government plans to send thousands of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in this country on a one-way journey to Rwanda. This scheme is the result of a $156m deal between Priti Patel and the Rwandan government. Patel claimed that critics of the scheme have no alternative solutions to propose that would stop the people-smuggling trade. This is patently untrue: charities, organisations and individuals have suggested humane ways to undermine exploitative trafficking, both before and in the wake of the Rwanda announcement. In this blog, however, we would simply like to discuss the reasons why the scheme has such huge potential to harm human beings like our clients, and to share some stories and responses from people we work with.
That the UK may adopt ‘offshore detention’ for migrants has been a sinister threat since even before the Nationality and Borders Bill started its journey through parliament. We know from Australia's experience with offshore detention that it leads to sexual abuse of women and children, harms people's mental health to the point of self-harm and suicide and leaves refugees in limbo for years. Like Australia's, the UK’s plan is not only deeply harmful on a human level but grossly expensive, with estimates putting the cost at £1.44bn a year. Keeping arrivals in the UK and simply reducing the worsening wait-times on asylum claims and allowing asylum seekers to work whilst awaiting a decision would lower costs and benefit the economy: instead, the aim seems to be both as inhumane and as expensive as possible.
We know from the response to Ukraine that the British public are generous towards those fleeing war and torture, and we already have a network of charities experienced at supporting asylum seekers in the community. Rather than build on this, the government is pursuing a reckless strategy to grab headlines and distract from its own current bad PR over the lockdown parties. Offshoring is likely to prove highly ineffective even on its own terms. Between 2014 and 2017 Israel ran a similar scheme with Rwanda as well as Uganda, and the vast majority of those who were sent to these countries found themselves destitute and at the mercy of under-resourced provision. Most left Africa as soon as possible and many ended up escaping to Europe – often with the exploitative ‘help’ of people-smugglers.
The choice of Rwanda specifically also sparks concern. The UK itself criticised Rwanda’s human rights record as recently as last year, particularly its restrictions on media freedom and civil society: migrants sent to Rwanda from the UK could find themselves cut off from specialist organisations who could support and advocate for them, and thanks to tightly controlled national media conditions this could go unreported and abuses unchallenged. At the UN last year, the UK also raised allegations of torture, disappearances and extra-judicial killings in Rwanda. Yet in full knowledge of this the British government is planning to send this nation some of the world’s most vulnerable and oppressed individuals: not only a cruel action in itself, but one giving the green light to further cruelty out of sight and out of mind.
The primary targets of the scheme will allegedly be ‘single men’ who have risked their lives to arrive in the UK via irregular methods such as small boats and lorries; the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding crucially though do not restrict this scheme to men only, suggesting a slippery slope towards women and children is very much on the minds of the drafters. Our government though continues to demonise in particular young male refugees, disregarding the fact that this group often face the worst danger in their home countries and have no option but to flee. Some men also go on ahead, hoping to find a safe place where they can be joined by their family.
Worryingly, if a male refugee had travelled to the UK ahead of his family members, he would very possibly be classified as a ‘single male’ and flown to Rwanda. If permitted to remain there, his family would presumably be expected to join him there, or face permanent separation.
The scheme would also not exclude victims of modern slavery, despite the UK having recently condemned Rwanda’s failure to protect survivors of trafficking. This omission suggests that the government’s talk on becoming a leading nation in the tackling and ending of slavery and trafficking is just that: talk, which can easily be disregarded when deemed politically convenient.
Yet again, the government is predicating its hostility towards migrants on the claim that so-called ‘safe and legal routes’ for seeking asylum in the UK exist and are accessible. We know that this is not the case. Time and again men, women and children have to resort to the danger and trauma of small boat and lorry journeys because they simply cannot get non-existent visas. Ukrainians have been treated with more humanity than migrants from non-European countries, and we know from having lived in the time of Syria and Ukraine that if refugees have access to safe routes, they use them. If the government is serious about tackling people smuggling, they would create more safe routes to the UK, starting by expanding the scope of existing family reunion provisions so that it is not restricted solely to pre-flight spouses and minor children. We see daily how refugees, such as RAMFEL client Yasmin, are prevented from bringing their loved ones to join them and feel they have no option but to seek alternative passage.
The government itself has also conceded that it has no idea whether this plan will be cost effective. They insist though that if refugees believe they will get sent to Rwanda, then the so-called ‘pull factor’ of coming to the UK will be removed. This is a favourite line of the government, but is not supported by any evidence, and in fact the available research shows that cultural, linguistic and familial ties are the reasons refugees seek to come to the UK. In fact, the head of the Home Office has even conceded there is insufficient evidence to show that this policy will deter UK arrivals, suggesting the government body charged with implementing the plan does not believe it will achieve its stated aim.
One of our clients, Hassan*, a refugee who has been battling to bring his wife and children to the UK, shared his thoughts on the new developments: ‘You have to understand that people don’t risk the journey through the sea for pleasure, it’s because back home you are facing death from all sides so you have to risk your life to find safety. If the UK government will not give my wife and children or brothers and sisters a visa to join me in the UK, and I know they are suffering in the way I suffered back home, you have no choice but to find other ways to get here. The only thing you want is for your family to be safe – I think this is all anyone wants – and this makes you do impossible things. Should we be exiled to an unsafe country where we have no ties, simply because we want to make a better life for us and our families in the UK, free from persecution?’
He added: ‘Everyone has a right to live in peace and be secure. I know that not long ago Rwanda’s human rights record was criticised by the UK. Is it safe to send refugees there, or does the UK government not care and is just using us as part of a political game and to scare people?’
The plans are terrifying to those in the UK who fear they may become targets for the scheme. Yesterday another one of our clients – an 18-year-old who arrived here in January – told a RAMFEL caseworker that he has been driven by the Rwanda development to contemplate suicide. It was striking to hear him speak like this, as in the short time he has been in the UK, after a hugely traumatic journey to the country, we have been amazed at how quickly he has developed ties, forming a friendship group, enrolling in college and rapidly improving his English. If learning of the UK’s plan causes such damage, one shudders to think how much those actually removed to Rwanda will suffer.
Patel’s and Johnson’s idea shows a callous disregard for human life and wellbeing. Despite its rhetoric on Ukraine, the government has now shown its true colours when it comes to welcoming refugees. This has to galvanise us to continue in the long and disheartening fight against the ‘anti-refugee bill’ and we must resist this plan and oppose the offshoring of refugees.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Waltham Forest Council is hosting an information event on 6th April for Ukrainian residents, those affected by the crisis, and those considering putting themselves forward as sponsors for the Homes for Ukraine Scheme. RAMFEL and other services will be present to provide advice and support.
You can read more and register for the event here.
The government’s announcement yesterday of a new hosting scheme to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK should be cautiously welcomed, but certainly not celebrated considering the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.
For starters, it is unclear why visas remain necessary at all for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The UK, unlike the remaining 27 members of the EU, is the only country still insisting on Ukrainians having visas before entering the UK. This bureaucratic hurdle may literally be a matter of life and death when seeking to leave a country besieged by war.
The scheme, which in essence allows UK based hosts to “sponsor” a family, also contains a bizarre requirement that would-be hosts must know the name of the person/people they are sponsoring. If the purpose of this is to only allow those with existing connections with Ukraine and Ukrainians to sponsor people, then it will reduce massively the numbers of eligible hosts, in turn reducing the number of Ukrainian refugees who can benefit. If it is solely a tick box exercise, easily met by a simple introduction through a social media platform, then it seems to serve no purpose.
If though this scheme, despite its flaws and the unnecessary delays in its creation, sees more Ukrainian refugees granted the right to enter and reside in the UK, then it is a positive development. A big question remains though as to why the government has not created such schemes for refugees fleeing other recent conflicts.
RAMFEL’s work involves supporting UK based refugees in applying for their family members to join them. This work is challenging, with burdensome procedural requirements – such as attending visa centres that may require crossing dangerous borders – and restrictive rules that limit who qualifies as a “family member”.
Prior to the introduction of its new scheme, the government’s initial response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine was to expand its definition of a family member so that British nationals could bring parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings from Ukraine to the UK. The thought of your nearest and dearest being trapped in such terrifying conditions does not bear thinking about, but for all other refugees in the UK, such a broad definition of “family member” simply does not exist, and they are limited to sponsoring spouses and minor children.
Any hope of bringing siblings, parents or even children now over the age of 18 is extremely difficult, and reliant entirely on the government exercising discretion and showing compassion. Anyone familiar with the UK’s immigration system will know that it is not known for its compassion.
RAMFEL client, Yasmin, for example has her four younger siblings stuck in Ethiopia. She has applied for them to join her in the UK, but been told in no uncertain terms by the government that there is “no provision within our immigration rules for someone to be allowed to travel to the UK to seek status or temporary sanctuary.”
Yasmin is far from our only client who has been prevented from bringing vulnerable family members to the UK due to the government’s restrictive and inflexible family reunion rules. Another client, Hamed*, is desperately seeking to bring his 15-year-old sister to the UK. She is already a refugee, living in a war zone having fled persecution in her home country, and an independent social worker has confirmed her vulnerability and risk of exploitation to meet her essential physical needs.
Hamed’s sister applied to join him in the UK in October 2021. Five months later, the government has still yet to reach a decision on this application. Hamed is understandably exasperated at the delays, and spends each passing minute terrified about his sister’s welfare.
Others have written extensively about the different tone and approach adopted by the UK and other western governments towards refugees now fleeing Ukraine, and contrasted this warm and sympathetic level of support with when the Taliban retook Afghanistan last summer, when Syrians fled their homes in the mid-2010s or the ongoing war in Yemen. The UK government’s decisions to broaden its family reunion rules to permit more Ukrainians to come here and now introduce their much trumpeted hosting scheme seems like yet another aspect of this preferential treatment for so-called “good migrants”.
RAMFEL supports any government decision that makes it easier for Ukrainians to seek sanctuary here. However, this more flexible and compassionate approach should be applied whenever conflicts break out and men, women and children through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes and their loved ones in order to survive.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
RAMFEL and many others celebrated fresh hope yesterday, when Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s Nationality And Borders Bill took a battering in the House of Lords. Of the four clauses voted down, one of those with most urgent significance for RAMFEL’s clients is Clause 11, which would have divided refugees into two tiers depending on whether they arrived in the UK through a designated resettlement scheme or through clandestine means. Those who arrived via a route not sanctioned by the government (for example on a small boat) would be criminalised and denied even more rights and protections. Not only would they face imprisonment for so-called ‘illegal entry’ – despite it being acknowledged under international law that refugees often have no choice but to flee their home without a passport, far less secure a visa to a third country – but they would also be subject to the harsh ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition, and be prevented from bringing their family members to the UK under family reunion provisions.
Even before last night’s dramatic vote, Johnson was facing opposition to Clause 11 from many of his own MPs, who wrote a letter condemning the ‘dangerous’ bill and calling it ‘fundamentally at odds’ with the historic Refugee Convention: an international treaty created in response to the Holocaust.
The clause claims to encourage migrants towards so-called ‘safe and legal routes’ into the UK. But as many of our clients know, these supposed routes are often complete fictions. Our client Yasmin recently shared her upsetting story. Yasmin fled from political persecution and abuse in Ethiopia and sought refuge in London. Her young siblings remain behind, now orphaned, living with domestic servitude, violence and abuse, and at risk of FGM and forced marriage. Yasmin is the only family member left to care for her siblings: but when she amassed evidence and applied to the Home Office for them to join her in London through family reunion provision, she was denied. In other words, this family in danger tried to use a ‘safe route’ – only to find that such a route did not exist.
Yasmin’s case is not unique. RAMFEL has scores of clients who have successfully built a life in the UK after seeking sanctuary here. These clients’ stories would have been very different if Clause 11 had been in operation. One such client is Tom*, who cooperated with the British Army in Afghanistan as an interpreter, and was wanted by the Taliban when the British troops withdrew. Tom managed to escape and came to the UK without a visa. Tom has now been granted refugee status and wants to apply for family reunion for his children and wife. Under Clause 11, however, Tom would have been classed as a criminal, purely because of the route that he was forced to take to the UK. His family would be prevented from joining here. Having worked with the British armed forces in extremely dangerous conditions, he would have found the UK not just willing to imprison him but also keep him permanently separated from his wife and children.
Michael* entered the UK as a child in 2015, fleeing compulsory indefinite military service in Eritrea, and was granted humanitarian protection. Since then he has studied in college and now speaks fluent English. He attained qualifications in plumbing, and is in every sense positively contributing to society. Under Clause 11, Michael would not have been able to undertake this training, as he would have been prevented from accessing public funds and student finance. His ability to contribute to society in the UK would have been greatly diminished. It is difficult to see how anyone would benefit from this, even disregarding the fact that Michael’s own hopes and dreams would have been shattered.
Aaron* fled Iran after being imprisoned and tortured. After coming to the UK clandestinely, he was granted refugee status in 2020, and RAMFEL subsequently helped him apply for family reunion: his wife and children joined him in 2021. Aaron struggles with his mental health, and this was exacerbated while he was separated from his family. Under Clause 11, he would still be suffering this painful separation, probably unable to work and receiving far more support from local mental health teams.
Noah* arrived in the UK in early 2015 after making the dangerous journey from Eastern Africa via the Mediterranean sea into Europe. Noah immediately sought asylum and after waiting one year he was granted refugee status. Noah enrolled himself in English classes and sponsored his wife and four children to join him in the UK. In 2019, with a desire to enhance his employment prospects, Noah enrolled at his local college for a two-year diploma course in Business Studies. Noah has now successfully graduated and gained employment in the Security sector.
Noah’s successful integration in the UK would not have been possible with Clause 11. When asked about his feelings on Clause 11, Noah expressed concerns for the mental health of those separated from their loved ones trapped in dangerous situations: ‘Refugees also deserve to have their families be together in a safe place. If you can’t bring your family to join you, you will be thinking about them all the time and what’s happening to them.’ He also feared for those refugees who would have to try and live without access to public funds, stating: 'People need time to establish themselves in a new country, learn the language, build a network. Look at me now, I am working and contributing, but without some help when I arrived here, I don’t know how I would have been able to begin building my life in my new home.'
It has been heartening for us at RAMFEL to see such stringent challenges to the NABB: a bill that would not only damage and endanger human beings like those we encounter every day among our clients, but would also set an even more chilling precedent for the way in which the UK treats some of its most vulnerable residents. It has been pointed out by many that the standards the UK sets are also followed by other countries. If we begin criminalising refugees for simply seeking sanctuary, other countries with less of an established asylum framework and tradition of welcoming refugees, can be expected to follow suit.
After these three days of debate in the bill’s report stage, changes made in the Lords will return to the Commons. The government can then accept the changes imposed by the Lords or challenge them. But the strong message from the Lords, in combination with mounting public pressure and official opposition from the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, gives us hope that the bill can be defeated. The damage to the UK’s reputation and to the lives of so many people like Yasmin, Michael, Aaron and Noah will be severe if NABB instead becomes UK law.
*Names have been changed in order to protect identities.
Yesterday, the UK government announced that it would be maintaining the ban on asylum seekers working in the UK. Explaining the government’s reasoning, Tom Pursglove, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration, stated:
"The Home Office has therefore concluded that the fiscal benefits arising from a relaxation of the right to work policy are likely to be significantly lower than the figures claimed by Lift the Ban. In light of wider priorities to fix the broken asylum system, reduce pull factors to the UK, and ensure our policies do not encourage people to undercut the resident labour force, we are retaining our asylum seeker right to work policy with no further changes."
This assessment, focusing solely on cost implications, demonstrates that the government’s review of the policy was in effect a sham.
The refusal to lift the ban lacks common, human and financial sense. Whilst the government’s lack of empathy for asylum seekers’ wellbeing is not surprising, as the Conservative party frequently and loudly proclaims its fiscal expertise, it remains shocking to see them deny healthy, working-age people the right to work when the UK is suffering from labour shortages in so many sectors. The government’s alternative to lifting the ban is to instead create more temporary visas butchers, poultry workers and HGV drivers. This misses the point entirely.
This also is not good politics. Research by Refugee Action strongly suggests that the public support lifting the ban. A survey conducted in Witham, constituency seat of Home Secretary Priti Patel, found that 70% of voters favoured lifting the ban. This constituency seat has existed since 2010 and has only ever known a Conservative MP. If support for lifting the ban stands at 70% here, then support throughout the rest of the country is almost certainly higher.
More important than any financial costs though are the human costs. Waiting times for decisions on asylum claims have increased dramatically in recent years, no doubt partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of March 2021, over 50,000 people had been waiting for over six months for a decision on their claim. During that period, not only are asylum claimants perpetually facing the threat of being deported to a country where they fear persecution, but they have no choice but to wait idly, unable to contribute and utilise their skills.
Throughout this period, many will also be housed by the Home Office, at public expense. If permitted to work, asylum seekers could fund their own accommodation. Not only would this save the public money, but also allow asylum seekers to begin building a life in the UK.
RAMFEL work with many asylum seekers who have been waiting lengthy periods for a decision on their claims. We see the damage the current policy causes.
One of our clients, Amanda, is a UK qualified solicitor who was working and paying tax here for many years. Due to an administrative error, her sponsorship visa was revoked and she thereafter claimed asylum in the UK. Amanda has now been waiting a year for her decision on her claim, unable to work, contributing nothing despite her eagerness and ability to do so.
Similarly, our client, Janet, is a qualified healthcare worker with five years of experience working in the health and care sector in the UK. Janet has been waiting for a decision on her asylum claim for over 2 and a half years. She has been unable to work to use her valuable skills and experience despite the health and care sector in the UK facing a severe staffing crisis during the pandemic. Janet is stuck in limbo, and finds it deeply distressing that having been working full time and self-sufficient, she now relies on charity from friends just to survive.
It is truly shocking that the government has disputed the level of cost savings that could be achieved by lifting the ban as its main reason for maintaining the status quo. They have opted to preserve a wasteful system and disregard the overwhelming weight of evidence, backed by the public and by business, in support of reform.
No one benefits from maintaining the ban on asylum seekers working. But the UK public foot the bill, and more importantly people like Amanda and Janet wait patiently, unable to use their skills and contribute as various UK sectors remain understaffed.
*Names have been changed in order to protect identities.
Yesterday’s news that 27 men, women and children died in the English Channel was both tragic but entirely foreseeable. The UK government knew that these crossings were dangerous, but has continued to take no action to ensure that those seeking to reach the UK can do so safely and without the aid of people smugglers. In the absence of safe routes to the UK, desperate people – fleeing persecution, war and poverty – are left with no choice but to take drastic and indeed dangerous measures.
The UK government’s response to an increase in channel crossings this year has been to dial up the rhetoric. Priti Patel has made it her mission to stop the boats and reduce so-called pull factors. This shows a striking lack of understanding both of the reasons people flee their home countries and their wishes for coming to the UK.
Just one month ago, Patel argued that asylums seekers wanted to come to the UK because they were housed in hotels whilst their claims were processed. This looked foolish at the time, but as 27 lives have been lost, now looks grotesque. Tellingly, the Home Office remain unable to produce any evidence that supports their position that so-called “pull factors” incentivize asylum seekers to come to the UK.
Patel’s response to yesterday’s tragedy has been equally disappointing. Whilst of course paying lip service to how awful it was, there was no hint of contrition on her part or of the government more broadly. Of greater concern, there was also no suggestion that the government will review its policies and create safe passages for asylum seekers to arrive in the UK. As the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill meanders through parliament, the reality is that smugglers will instead be further emboldened and the situation will become worse for the small number of people who want to seek asylum in the UK.
The government continues to look at ever more expensive options in its efforts to stop the boats, none of which are likely to be successful despite coming at huge tax-payer expense. Instead of paying France to prevent Channel crossings or proposing to offshore asylum processing centres ever further afield, the government should instead re-evaluate why people face no choice but to attempt to reach the UK by dinghy.
Three simple solutions are:
RAMFEL therefore calls on the Home Secretary to resign if she is unwilling to take action to prevent the English Channel becoming a graveyard for those seeking sanctuary in the UK.
The issue at hand
It is reported that in 2020, 7,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the UK by boat, braving the 50 or so mile crossing between northern France and south-east England. In 2018, 585 asylum seekers made the same journey, and the number increased to 1,800 in 2019. There has therefore been an increase of around 5,000 people in 2020, which is less than 2% of the total population of the borough of Newham, where RAMFEL is based.
To put into perspective, the UK received 35,566 asylum claims in 2019, of which some of the aforementioned 1,800 arrivals by boat will likely be included. As a result of Covid, and the restrictions on international travel, it is likely this number will fall in 2020 and it seems safe to assume that the UK will not ultimately see the number of total asylum claims rise dramatically this year.
On a global scale, the UK is recognised as having provided sanctuary to less than 0.5% of the world’s estimated 26 million refugees. Jordan, a far poorer country, hosts over 10% of the world’s refugee population. Lebanon, a country one twentieth the size of the UK, hosts around 6-7%.
In view of the miniscule numbers of people actually involved, why have the boat crossings in 2020 so gripped the nation and seen the UK government reportedly considering a new offshore processing system in places as far flung as Papua New Guinea and St Helena?
At first glance, St Helena, Moldova, Morocco and Papua New Guinea probably do not have a huge amount in common. These though are the four places that the government is believed to be considering, alongside floating vessels, as possibilities for detaining those arriving by boat to seek asylum in the UK.
There’s a chance some people have not even heard of some of these places, but one, St Helena, is a British overseas territory in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and the other three are sovereign countries in east Europe, north Africa and the south-western Pacific respectively. Whilst possibly obvious why the UK would consider its own remaining last bastions of empire for housing refugees, it is not immediately clear why the other three countries are viewed as viable.
Morocco, perhaps, was picked because the EU has long viewed it as a prospective partner in stemming migration flows. As Morocco falls outside of the reach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), far more heavy handed approaches can be employed by Moroccan officials, with the acquiescence of EU states, to prevent people reaching ECHR territory. This includes the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Cueta that sit within Morocco.
Moldova appears the most random of the three countries proposed, but would be subject to ECHR jurisdiction, thereby preventing on paper the outsourcing of conduct that would not be permitted in the UK.
Papua New Guinea is the most contentious of the three countries mooted, and not least because it is over 8,500 miles away from the UK and no direct flight route presently exists. The country has already housed asylum seekers in similar circumstances; these asylum seekers were though seeking to reach Australia.
In 2013, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to “stop the boats”, by ensuring that asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat would never reach the country. The policy, which has also seen asylum seekers detained in Nauru, is hugely controversial and stories of abuse at the detention centres is rife. Reports of suicidal tendencies amongst detainees have been a near constant, and in February 2020 the International Criminal Court (ICC) not only described the offshore detention centres as reaching the threshold of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment”, thereby rendering it unlawful under international law, but also said it formed the basis of a crime against humanity.
This though seems to be the example the UK wishes to follow.
Whether exiling asylum seekers to countries with questionable human rights records is legal is certainly debatable. As is whether it is even beneficial, if ultimately those whose claims are successful will be allowed to settle in the UK anyway.
A key difference legally between what the UK is considering and what Australia does is that Australia’s policy is designed precisely because it does not want these asylum seekers reaching Australian land and being protected by Australian laws. That is a crucial distinction, as for UK boat arrivals, the key word is just that: arrival. These people have made it to the UK and are covered by UK law and by the ECHR. Additionally, even if the boats did not make it to the UK as they were intercepted en route, the asylum seekers would still be in ECHR territory so would be afforded the basic rights covered by this regional human rights treaty.
The ECHR is the strongest regional human rights treaty that exists and member states of the Council of Europe (all European countries, excluding Belarus) overwhelmingly comply with decisions reached by the European Court of Human Rights, even if those decisions are not always popular. The ECHR requires states to respect, protect and fulfil a number of human rights obligations, including not to inflict torture, cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. This obligation extends to not deporting asylum seekers to countries where they face such a fate, the principle of non-refoulement.
The prohibition on torture is in fact recognized as customary international law, and the right to be free from such mistreatment is absolute, meaning there are no instances where a state can justify its use. Sending asylum seekers to Morocco, where state brutality especially against political dissidents remains routine, should immediately raise alarm bells about how asylum seekers would be treated upon reception.
The appalling treatment of asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea is already documented extensively too, and, as detailed already, the ICC have recognized Australia’s offshore detention centres as constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Without serious changes in practice and significant and meaningful assurances from the Papua New Guinea authorities, the UK would have its work cut out to convince both courts in the UK, let alone in Strasbourg where the European Court sits, that sending asylum seekers here was permissible under the ECHR.
Additionally, asylum seekers in the UK are afforded a right of appeal if the Home Office initially refuses their claim. The success rates at appeal are relatively high, with the Refugee Council finding that in the final quarter of 2019, there was a 41% success rate on appeal. This means that in four out of ten cases, the UK immigration courts (the IAC) determined that the Home Office had been wrong to refuse the appellant’s asylum claim. These figures suggest that the Home Office certainly cannot be trusted to get these life or death decisions right in the vast majority of cases.
Bringing an appeal in the IAC is challenging, even for immigration practitioners. For asylum seekers not speaking English as a first language, often traumatized by abuse both in their home country and en route to the UK, it is nigh on impossible. Consequently, legal representation is often critical to ensure a fair hearing. Mercifully, despite the cuts in 2012, asylum seekers can still secure legal aid to cover their representative’s costs, both in attending their asylum interview and if necessary advocating for them in court. Legal aid can also cover the commission of expert reports, which can be crucial for substantiating the persecution the asylum seeker faces in their home country.
Quite how though a lawyer based in London would be able to effectively represent a client they have never met, who is detained thousands of miles away, is yet to be explained. Assuming lawyers would not be billing the legal aid agency for flights to St Helena or Papua New Guinea, it is unclear how they would be able to communicate with their clients. Likewise, if an asylum claim is refused, and an appeal brought, the asylum seeker appealing would presumably not be flown in for an appeal hearing in Feltham, where one of the major IACs is based.
We are then left with a situation where lawyers will never meet their clients, and those whose are participating in what they consider to be a life or death appeal, are forced to pursue these appeals from thousands of miles away. Whilst further detail will surely be forthcoming if these plans advance, for now it is impossible to imagine that this system would allow an asylum seeker a fair and effective consideration of their case.
The question of out of country appeals was actually addressed by the UK courts in June 2017 in a case considering the now defunct “deport first, appeal later” provisions. Here the Supreme Court determined that this system was unlawful as the two claimants – a Nigerian and a Jamaican national – could not meaningfully participate in their deportation appeals from their home countries. This was due to a number of factors, not least the importance of giving evidence in person and the poor quality facilities within the IACs and the appellants’ home countries to facilitate the giving of evidence by, for example, Skype. It is difficult to imagine a fairer system being implemented for appeals brought by asylum seekers who are detained thousands of miles away from the IAC in sleepy Feltham.
Why is this being proposed?
Whether the legal ramifications actually matter to the UK government is another point.
Bashing the European Court of Human Rights has long been a favorite past-time of politicians of all stripes. Threatening to leave the ECHR, and thus the jurisdiction of the European Court, has also increasingly crept into political parlance in recent years. Whilst this still seems unlikely at present, it is worth remembering that in the mid-2000s talk of leaving the EU was largely consigned to the fringes of the Conservative party too.
However, even if the UK is not set on a showdown with the Council of Europe over continued membership of the European Court of Human Rights, the apparent legal barrier to offshoring asylum claims perhaps no longer acts as the safeguard it once did. This government’s willingness to breach international treaties has already been demonstrated in their ten months in power, and the relative comfort they expressed after breaching the EU withdrawal agreement was unprecedented. If laws no longer constrain a government when it is considered expedient or advantageous to disregard them, then nothing is really off the table.
Equally, it is not surprising that a government elected on the back of its promise to “get Brexit done” would take a hard line towards immigration, even if when the numbers are actually analysed this does seem like a particularly heavy handed and ultimately unnecessary response.
Certainly too, the sight of asylum seekers literally arriving in the UK is something the British public are not used to. When the US government began caging children in 2018, people were understandably horrified. The thought of migrants descending on mass over the southern US border was though relatively easy to picture as the narrative of Latino, Middle Eastern and African migrants “invading and penetrating” wealthy and predominantly white countries’ borders is a narrative that politicians frequently push. In the UK though, we rarely if ever actually see migrants arrive. As an island, it is simply far easier to travel here by plane than by boat, even if your intention is to seek protection from persecution. Had these additional 5,000 asylum seekers arrived by more traditional migratory routes, i.e. plane, this would not have dominated the news and probably not seen these increasingly radical solutions proposed.
Another concern for the UK, and one that is particularly ironic, is that on 1 January 2021 the UK’s powers and ability to remove asylum seekers to EU countries will massively reduce when the current transition period ends and Brexit truly becomes Brexit. At this point, the UK will also cease being part of the Dublin agreement.
The Dublin agreement essentially is an agreement between EU member states that wherever an asylum seeker registers within the EU is where his or her claim will be processed. If an asylum seeker, for example, enters Europe via Italy after crossing the Mediterranean, avoids registration and travels northward to France and is encountered and claims asylum, France will be responsible for determining their claim. If this asylum seeker thereafter makes it to the UK and claims asylum, the UK government is entitled to remove them to France for their claim to be processed there. It was this agreement that the UK relied upon when recently removing a number of Yemeni and Syrian asylum seekers to Spain, where they were subsequently abandoned outside Madrid airport with no support.
There is a good chance that a large number of the 7,000 boat arrivals this year will have been registered in another EU country, seeing as all of them have at the very least been in France before arrival in the UK. For now, the UK can continue to remove these asylum seekers to other EU states with relatively little fuss, but this will cease in three months unless a new agreement with the EU is reached. Although still extreme hyperbole to suggest that hosting an additional 5,000 asylum seekers constitutes a crisis, if you oppose any form of migration from the global south and the middle east, then losing the ability to swiftly remove such people may cause you sleepless nights.
Maybe though the government’s biggest aim with pursuing these outlandish strategies is simply to distract from their flawed management of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the UK drifts into its second wave, and public confidence in the government’s response has plummeted, being viewed as attempting something radical in response to a so-called crises and at the same time appealing to xenophobic voters is perhaps just an easy win for a government that has been unable to champion many successes of late.
Written by Nick Beales.
RAMFEL are currently reviewing the way we work to reduce the risk of the spread of Coronavirus and to ensure we are able to continue our work as much as possible now and in the future with restricted movement and capacity. Below are the changes we are implementing;
- From 19/03/2020 our drop-in advice session on Thursday at our Ilford office will no longer run, this will be replaced by an advice line running each Tuesday and Thursday from 10:00 am to 1pm – Please call 020 7052 5712 this advice line is only for new clients wanting to access services.
- Existing clients can call the direct line of their caseworker or email them. You can expect a response from them within 5 working days. If you do not have the contact information of your caseworker please contact email@example.com and we will give you the details. Please do not drop-in to our offices as you will not be seen without an appointment.
- You can contact us at any time through the website here.
- From 19/03/2020 our food bank will closed. We will be in touch with people who are registered with our foodbank and are receiving asylum support (roughly £35 a week) or lower to make alternative arrangements for support.
- We will be trying to work over the phone, online and by post as much as possible to deliver our services.
- If you have an appointment but are feeling unwell within the last 21 day please do not come to our offices but contact us by phone/email/through the website. If you need medical help call 111 or in an emergency situation 999.
- Prior to any appointment at RAMFEL, you will be asked screening questions to confirm you do not have any symptoms.