The UK government has proposed a controversial new law that would allow authorities to allow people arriving on the coast via small boats to cross the Channel that separates the island from France.
Several charitable and human rights groups have criticized the plan – known as the Illegal Migration Bill – for criminalizing the efforts of thousands of genuine refugees.
The announcement this week comes after Britain’s Conservative government made stopping boat arrivals a top priority. Last year, the government turned it into a criminal offence for individuals to arrive in the UK without a visa or special permission.
According to government figures, more than 45,000 people crossed the canal in 2022, an increase of more than 17,000 from the previous year’s record.
This year, nearly 3,000 people have made the perilous crossing that varies in width from 240km (150 miles) at its widest to 34km (21 miles) at its narrowest.
At a summit held in Paris last Friday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron signed an agreement to halt cross-Channel migration, with London saying it will give France $576 million over the next three years to buy the boats. to help stop.
‘New cruel bill’
Anyone illegally arriving on British shores after passing through a “safe” country will be legally required to be removed. Under the proposed law, more than 20 countries are considered “safe” for refugees to be deported to.
“Whether these countries accept returned refugees is another question. As far as I know, there is no agreement or arrangement with any of the countries mentioned above. There will also be legal challenges in the UK courts,” Abdirashid Mohamed, a lawyer at Aden and Co Solicitors, told Al Jazeera.
According to Mohamed, the bill excludes the chance that many newcomers will apply for asylum simply because they have arrived on British shores in an “irregular way” – on boats.
If the bill passes, the Home Secretary will have the power to detain and remove those who come by boat to their home country or a safe third country such as Rwanda.
The law also allows authorities to detain arrivals for up to 28 days without bail or judicial review. Those under the age of 18, those deemed medically unfit to fly, or those at real risk of serious and irreversible harm in their home country are exempt.
Even in these cases, the individuals have a maximum of 45 days to remain in the UK before their appeal is exhausted. Authorities can then remove them.
“At the moment, the bill does not close the door to underage asylum seekers. Should the UK government attempt to remove unaccompanied minors in the future, this removal will undoubtedly be challenged by the UK courts,” said Mohamed.
The new bill sets an annual ceiling, set by politicians, on the total number of refugees and migrants the UK will settle.
“This government has in recent years denounced Britain’s reputation for providing places of refuge, breaking international law and demonizing refugees. This new brutal bill is an extreme step in the same failed approach,” Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage, a charity that provides legal aid to refugees and asylum seekers, told Al Jazeera.
“We have seen, even in the last year, that making the lives of refugees more difficult and focusing on deterrents does not work.”
Interior Secretary Suella Braverman failed to do so Guarantee to parliament that the law is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
“Of course the UK will always try to uphold international law, and I am convinced that this bill is compatible with international law,” she told parliament.
Last year, the British government agreed on an agreement to send tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda, more than 6,400 km (4,000 miles) away.
But a last-minute order from the European Court of Human Rights blocked the first deportation flight. The High Court of London then ruled in December that it was lawful.
Legal experts said the bill would face many hurdles if passed in UK and European courts.
“Due to its draconian nature, it is likely that the bill is not compatible with international law, and in particular is not compatible with refugee law under the 1951 UN Convention of which the UK is a founding member and also the European Convention for the Human Rights, which the UK has also signed,” said Mohamed.
“We are deeply concerned that this bill violates international refugee and human rights law. Undoubtedly, proposals within this bill will be challenged in the courts,” she said. “We have seen the appalling Rwanda plan come under legal challenge over the past year, and that battle is still going on. Yet this government is trying to put forward more of the same ridiculous proposals.”
‘Fleeing from war’
In a telephone conversation with Al Jazeera from London, 23-year-old Abdulmalik, an Iraqi national who crossed the channel with 10 other people in December, said he was not surprised by the proposed law.
‘They don’t care. They don’t want to help poor people fleeing war. It’s really sad when you see how they talk about us. But we have no choice. We will keep coming. Where else can we go?” he said, asking not to use his last name.
“If you stay in your country, you will die. So it is better to risk everything and cross over to England, even if you could die on the journey. I was with Eritreans, Syrians, Afghans. We all run from war. None of us would have taken the boat if we had other ways of getting to England.
United Nations Refugee Agency said it is “seriously concerned”.
“If passed, the legislation would amount to a ban on asylum – nullifying the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly, however genuine and compelling their claim may be, and without regard to their individual circumstances. it said in a statement.
“Most people fleeing war and persecution simply do not have access to the required passports and visas. There are no safe and ‘legal’ routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was drawn up.”