Explained | What is the new U.K. policy on refugees? 

Why have the UN refugee agency and the EU criticised the Illegal Migration Bill? Does it breach the norms of international law? What prompted the U.K. government to initiate such a move? What deal did Rwanda and the U.K. sign in 2022?

Updated - March 15, 2023 01:35 pm IST

Published - March 12, 2023 05:20 am IST

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings on March 7, 2023.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during a press conference following the launch of new legislation on migrant channel crossings on March 7, 2023. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: The Conservative government of the U.K. is proposing to adopt a new, stricter policy to deal with asylum seekers who arrive on the island via boat. The government has taken this step to fulfil a promise made in January 2023 by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to “stop the boats”. It was among the five key policy priorities he outlined at the time. The proposed plan to deport to origin or remove asylum seekers arriving in the U.K. by boat to a third country has been sharply criticised by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and by leaders of the European Union. They have argued that the new U.K. policy is incompatible with international law, specifically the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). While the Illegal Migration Bill (IMB) is yet to be passed by the U.K. Parliament, once that happens it will have retrospective applicability from March 7, 2023.

What is the political context for the Bill?

Policies to regulate immigration, specifically of undocumented workers and asylum seekers, have always been a sensitive political issue in the U.K., as in other developed economies. With the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments fuelling some aspects of the Brexit campaign, which became a reality on January 31, 2020, the U.K. Conservative Party has been a strong advocate for tighter immigration policies. This is purportedly aimed at protecting U.K. jobs or shifting the focus to skilled workers arriving through legal routes. However, through the recent years of the pandemic and the economic distress it has caused across developing countries, as well as the displacement of certain communities in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, ever greater numbers of asylum seekers have been arriving on the shores of the U.K., prompting closer scrutiny of the policy response in this regard.

What measures does the Bill propose?

The Bill, when passed into law by the U.K. Parliament, will require that the Home Secretary detain and remove those arriving in the U.K. illegally, either to Rwanda or another “safe” third country; would deny migrants the right to bail or judicial review for the first 28 days of their immigration detention; would only allow migrants who are minors, medically unfit to fly or at risk of serious harm in the country of their removal to delay their departure from the U.K.; and to block such migrants from returning to the U.K. or seeking British citizenship going forward. The Bill would also seek to set a cap on the number of refugees who will be permitted to settle in the U.K. through “safe and legal routes” — which at the moment only apply to people from Afghanistan and Ukraine, or British National status holders in Hong Kong. A relatively miniscule number of refugees also can enter the U.K. through the U.K. Resettlement Scheme, the Community Sponsorship Scheme, the Refugee Family Reunion and the Mandate Resettlement Scheme.

What is the trend on refugee numbers?

The figure for arrivals in small boats across the English Channel was 45,755 in 2022, the highest number since records began in 2018. The so-called “small boat arrivals” comprised approximately 45% of the total asylum applications made in 2022, which was close to 89,000, a new high after the figure dropped to a 20-year low of 22,600 in 2010 from a previous record of 1,03,000 in 2002. Albania, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria were the top countries from which asylum applications were received. Last year, the U.K. government returned asylum decisions for 29,150 applicants, granting some form of protection to 17,747 people, which is 61% of the total number.

What were the earlier measures adopted by the U.K. towards asylum seekers?

To crack down on undocumented migration and the influx of refugees, in December 2021 the U.K. Parliament passed the Nationality and Borders Bill, which empowered the government to remove asylum seekers to a “safe” third country for “offshore asylum processing” and it also set an early precedent to “push back boats at sea”.

Editorial | Stopping the boats: On the U.K.’s new ‘Illegal Migration Law’ 

In April 2022, the U.K. and Rwanda signed a Memorandum of Understanding to relocate asylum seekers who are not being considered by the U.K. to Rwanda, a move that the UNHCR criticised over “shortcomings in its asylum process, citing the arbitrary denial of access to asylum procedures for some people, the risk of detention and deportation of undocumented asylum seekers, the discriminatory access to asylum procedures that LGBTIQ+ individuals face, or the lack of legal representation”. While the UNHCR said that this arrangement “does not meet the requirements necessary to be considered a lawful and/or appropriate bilateral transfer arrangement”, Human Rights Watch drew parallels to the documented suffering caused by Australia’s offshore detention sites in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Is the bill consistent with human rights laws?

The U.K.’s Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, admitted in a letter to MPs, that there was a “more than 50% chance” that the new bill is incompatible with international law. This is most salient in the concept of non-refoulement, an idea encapsulated in the Refugee Convention as well as the ECHR, to which the U.K. is a signatory, that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face threats to life and liberty. In this context, it is expected that the bill will be challenged in the courts and might fail on the grounds of inconsistency with human rights laws. However, the U.K. High Court recently ruled that the Rwanda deportation plan did not violate any human rights conventions.

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