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NIAS Europe Studies
UK's new bill is a misguided patchwork to Europe's refugee problem

  Sourina Bej

What happened?
On 7 March, the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new bill to stop illegal migration to the UK in small boats. Announcing the ‘Stop the Boats Bill,’ Sunak wrote: “If you come to the UK illegally, you will be stopped from making late claims and attempts to frustrate your removal. You will be removed in weeks, either to your own country if it is safe to do so, or to a safe third country like Rwanda.” Supporting his bill, the UK’s home secretary Suella Braverman, said: “The British people rightly expect us to solve this crisis... We must stop the boats. You will not be allowed to stay.” The ‘Stop the Boats Bill’, or Illegal Migration Bill has been tabled in the Parliament. With a rather overarching aim, the bill seeks to end illegal entry as a route to asylum in the UK. 

On 8 March, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR criticised the bill: “Draft migrant legislation proposed…would result in a de facto ‘asylum ban.’ “This would be a clear breach of the Refugee Convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud,” added the UNHCR.

In 2022, 45,755 men, women and children have been recorded to have crossed the English Channel in small boats. In 2022, more than 89,000 people – in great numbers from Albania – have applied for asylum status in the UK. In the same year, the UK authorities made initial decisions on 29,150 asylum applications and granted some form of protection to 17,747 illegal and undocumented migrants. 

What is the background?
First, the bill in brief. The bill, once passed, would remove legal remedy for any adults arriving in the UK on small boats or in the back of a lorry seeking asylum, even if they had come from a war zone or faced persecution in countries well known for human rights abuses. Instead, people would be sent back to “a country or territory to which there is reason to believe [they would] be admitted.” The executive rationale for denying the right to asylum is that people who have travelled by boat will have passed through other safe countries, where they should have claimed asylum first. Thus, the bill rests on a diabolical interpretation of Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, which states that refugees should not be penalised for their entry, provided they come directly and show good cause.

Second, the spirit of the bill. In the period leading up to the illegal migration bill, the UK had also introduced the Nationality and Borders Act in 2022. Modeled on Australia’s offshore processing of migrant’s asylum status, the illegal migration bill has become a political flashpoint. While on one hand, the UK relaxes job permit applications for highly skilled labour, on the other hand it chooses to delegalize migrants based only on their choice of entry. The Labour party has argued that the boats are a consequence of the government not providing safe routes to the people. Washed-up bodies on the southern coast of Britain and sinking boats are realities too. The ruling Conservatives have argued that the boats represent people who are not seeking asylum but are economic migrants looking to jump the queue. The bill is a mere consequence of the UK’s protectionist attitude, symptomatic of the BREXIT behaviour. There exists a moral socio-political consensus on documenting the migrants, however in politicizing and consequently delegalising the migrants, the Conservatives are now catering highly to the anti-immigrant sentiment, which exists in large parts of British society.

Third, conflict with international human rights and refugee convention. The right to seek and enjoy asylum safeguarded in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and developed in the Refugee Convention of 1951, are a legal humanitarian body of work. Crucially, these documents do not say that this right depends on applying for protection in the first safe country, yet the international refugee law has remained difficult to enforce through legal mechanisms. It relies instead on a sense of moral solidarity whereby host states would protect refugees. Europe’s migration crisis has put this solidarity to test over time and the UK’s new bill directly challenges the international refugee law that puts right to asylum as its fulcrum.

Fourth, support of Europe’s far-right conservatives. The support for the UK’s stance on illegal migration has garnered much praise from Europe’s far-right leaders. “Bravo,” wrote Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party on social media. “When will we finally have it?” said Éric Zemmour, the French far-right commentator, who was fourth in the race to succeed President Macron in 2022. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and head of the far-right League party, described the policy as “harsh, but fair.”

What does it mean?
First, legal challenges. Since leaving the EU’s Dublin Regulation, the UK does not have workable arrangements with other countries, other than Rwanda, to outsource the incoming migrants. Hence stopping them at sea is a large human cost to be borne. Furthermore, there is a deep contradiction in the bill. It states that those at risk of “serious and irreversible harm” will not be removed, thereby protecting the non-refoulement in principle. However, the methods to identify the risk without a legal challenge remains unclear. Breaking the rhetoric, asylum seekers only make up to 18 per cent of all kinds of migration in the UK. The asylum system in the UK has 166,261 unresolved cases till 2022. Is the new bill a fix for the administrative burden: the answer is diabolical. 

Second, underscoring the vulnerability of the migrants. This open-up the second legal challenge: “right to an effective remedy.” Since the influx of refugees in Europe and consequently on British shores in 2019, the UK has numerous cases where vulnerable people were found to have been unlawfully detained. The bill would rather render migrants paperless. It will do little to stop migration or even movement of people. The risk of undocumented migrants living through informal labour and more inventory networks of human trafficking will continue. 

Third, fate of the refugee convention. When a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, such as the UK, attempts to prohibit asylum seekers on account of their irregular entry, questions are raised on accountability and who protects the human rights framework when realism meets a protectionist State. Europe’s migration influx became its problem not by apparent choice but by deeper interconnected global forces. It was then the fate of the refugee convention and equal sharing of migrants became a debate. Today, a bill seems to be an answer to that debate where outsourcing, yet again after Australia, becomes a neo-novel fix. 

Fourth, emergence of a new categories of migrants. The bill, if passed, could intensify West’s integration paradox on who is most deserving to be allowed into the country.  New mental demarcations of deserving and undeserving migrants could only perpetuate marginalisation. This social behaviour is not unique today in the UK, as many immigrant groups have earlier attempted to distance themselves from new arrivals in order to avoid being associated with ‘negative’ social mobility and stereotypes. 

Fifth, a pathway for handling migrant crisis? The bill does more than open a debate on whether this could be Europe’s answer to the migrant crisis since 2016. What needs a deeper study is how the anti-immigrant stances of various far-right political groups in Europe could now be bolstered. The asylum seekers have been rising all over the EU, putting processing systems under strain. Lack of accommodation is a painful issue in countries such as Austria, where the government has started to house refugees and migrants in tents. At the same time, the social fractures within these host countries regarding keeping the migrants have also deepened.

This commentary has been previously published in The World This Week

About the author

Sourina Bej is a doctoral candidate and KAS-EIZ scholarship fellow at the University of Bonn.

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