Punching Down: the UK Government’s response to irregular migration
April 20, 2023
Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, has recently doubled down on her efforts to turn away small boats carrying people desperately attempting to make the notoriously difficult and dangerous crossing of the English Channel, and to remove those refugees and asylum-seekers who have been able to reach the UK by ‘irregular’ (undocumented, highly risky) means. Braverman’s Irregular Migration Bill has been condemned by humanitarian groups, with the UNHCR saying it is a “clear breach” of the 1951 refugee convention” which, as a signatory the United Kingdom has a duty to uphold. Disarmingly, Braverman appears willing to stake her reputation on defying international laws and mores. What lies behind this stance, and what does it mean for those risking their lives seeking sanctuary? LIDC’s Charine John investigates:
Buoyed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s assertion that he is “up for the fight” in seeing off legal challenges to Suella Braverman’s proposed legislation, Braverman readily admits that her Illegal Migration Bill is “more than 50%” likely to break human rights laws. Rather than resolve to uphold international laws and conventions, Braverman – the daughter of Indian immigrants – has, since taking office, vaunted her ‘dream’ of seeing refugees and asylum-seekers deported to Rwanda or sent back to France or returned to their home country. Those deported could include Iranian women, Afghans who helped British forces prior to the Taliban take-over as well as Syrian orphans.
“I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession.”
-Suella Braverman, Conservative party conference speech
Following a public outcry over ‘catastrophic’ overcrowding and brutal treatment, including handcuffing of migrants, at Manston detention centre in October 2022, Braverman was summoned to appear at a Home Affairs Committee on immigration policy. She blithely confirmed that even extremely vulnerable refugees such as a 16-year-old Syrian orphan fleeing the conflict in Syria would have no legal route through which to enter the UK. With legal avenues blocked, asylum-seeekers, refugees and migrants are forced to face unimaginable hardships including dangerous journeys across land and sea, reliant on people-traffickers, to risk their lives – and often their children’s lives – in search of safety. Turning them away serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence and instability that has forced them to flee their home countries in the first place.
Rather than tackle the people-traffickers Braverman claims she intends to do, this bill creates a market for them. It sends a dangerous message to the rest of the world that the UK is no longer willing to play its part in addressing the global refugee crisis. Most refugees have already faced unimaginable hardships, including dangerous journeys across land and sea, and have risked their lives in search of safety. To turn them away would be to deny them basic human rights and dignity, and it would only serve to perpetuate the cycle of violence and instability that has forced them to flee their home countries in the first place, not to mention the unfair burden it would place on the UK Coast Guard, who would be tasked with implementing it.
As Ian Dunt notes, the numbers of those arriving by boat have indeed increased, from 28K in 2021 to 45K in 2022. Some 90% of them claim asylum. Some 2/3rds of them are accepted. This does not bear out the government’s rhetoric. Those with the resilience, resources and stamina to make it to this country’s shores are from five countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan. Despite Braverman’s rhetoric – up to 98% of asylum applicants are approved. Yet such a statistic belies the reality. Less than one per cent of asylum applications were processed in 2022. Commentators, including the BBC’s Dominic Casciani, point to flaws in the proposed measures that render them impractical and unfeasible. Lack of investment, antiquated IT systems, insufficient human resources and training renders the government department responsible unfit for purpose. Vital services as Health, Transport, Borders & Immigration and Education are clogged up by inefficient bureaucracy and dogged by industrial action by demoralised staff. Is it any wonder that we have a government that, faced with the enormity of the task at hand, and finding itself unequal to the task, chooses to punch down and blame the most vulnerable?