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The Law, “Othered” Asylum seekers and the UK

The Law, “Othered” Asylum seekers and the UK

In an interview, Margaret Owen OBE, a barrister, international women’s human rights activist, patron of Peace in Kurdistan and founder and president of Widows for Peace and Democracy (WPD) and advisor at Mojust, explained why Suella Braverman’s position as UK’s home secretary is untenable, given the asylum policies and practices she has overseen, which have impacted negatively on so many Kurdish, Afghan and ‘Othered’ asylum seekers. “She is breaking the law”, Owen noted, whilst also expressing concerns shared by other colleagues over the government’s asylum policies and practices. 

Concerning Suella Braverman’s position as home secretary, Owen stated it is “untenable on so many different grounds. First of all, it’s an absolute scandal – the scandal of the overcrowding at Manston Camp. And we now know from all sorts of different sources that she absolutely ignored legal advice from her own department, from her own officials, that it was quite unlawful to keep people at Manston Camp – which was for short-term asylum processing – for so long and that she had to find alternative accommodation in hotels, and she just refused to do that. And the overcrowding in this camp is unbelievable.

“As Kurdish and ‘Othered’ asylum seekers suffer, Suella Braverman’s position as UK’s home secretary becomes ‘untenable” 

Margaret OWen OBE

“After all, it was there as a short-term processing site to hold, at the most, 1,600 people. There are 4,000 people there, some of them have been there as long as three weeks”, in a camp where, as The New York Times confirmed on 4 November 2022, “official rules for short-term migrant holding facilities stipulate that asylum seekers are supposed to stay there for only a day” (Tom Pursglove MP, incidentally, as the parliamentary under-secretary of state and the Home Department, had assured parliamentarians on 15 December 2021 that arrivals at Manston “will be expected to remain on-site for a maximum of five days … until they leave to go into further, appropriate accommodation” – Hansard, 15 December 2022). 

Deplorable conditions for Kurdish and ‘Othered’ asylum seekers at Manston

Margaret Owen noted, moreover, that “there are also many children” at Manston “and we now know that the conditions are deteriorating every day: MRSA, diphtheria, a lot of the children have now got scabies. It’s an appalling disaster”. 

Margaret Owen OBE

The government, indeed, is now facing a judicial review over the poor conditions in Manston, where many Kurdish and ‘Othered’ asylum seekers have been – and are being – ‘processed’. Climate minister Graham Stuart has acknowledged that the site was not operating legally. Sir Roger James Gale, a Conservative MP, “whose constituency includes the Manston centre, accused Ms. Braverman of misleading Parliament with her denials that she had ignored legal guidance. He said he believed that Ms. Braverman had actively blocked hotel bookings for migrants that would have relieved the strain on the overcrowded facility” (Euan Ward, NYT, 4 November 2022). 

On 31 October, Gale confirmed that “there were currently 4,000 people being held at the site and the situation there was a ‘breach of humane conditions’” (The National/PA Agency, 1 November 2022). David Neal, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, has stated that he was left speechless by the “wretched” conditions at the site. He warned that Manston had already passed the point of being unsafe and that he had written to the home secretary about the dangerous conditions at the centre, which is run by the Home Office. 

Although no more than 1,600 people were supposed to be held there for 24 hours for checks before being moved on to immigration detention centres or asylum accommodation, he established that 2,800 were being held there when he visited: “I spoke to an Afghan family who had been in a marquee for 32 days. So that’s in a marquee, … with kitmats on the floor, with blankets, for 32 days … I was very concerned about Manston. … It’s a really dangerous situation. There are risks there in terms of fire, in terms of disorder, in terms of medical and infection”, the BBC reported him as saying (Judith Burns, 26 October 2022).

The New York Times (Euan Ward, 4 November 2022) reported how, “recounting his time” – 25 days – “in the troubled Manston centre, Mohammad, who is from Iraqi Kurdistan, described how asylum seekers had been forced to sleep in chairs in freezing temperatures, adding that many had become sick in overcrowded tents. He said that he had been fed too little and often gone hungry, that many people were ‘filthy’ because there weren’t enough showers, and that he had been prevented from contacting his family in Iraq to let them know that he had survived the perilous journey across the English Channel”. 

Everyone being processed there, he added, is “suffering in Manston camp, believe me. … It is not a situation that humans deserve to live in”. His depiction of conditions at Manston, The New York Times reported, “generally aligned with inspection reports from immigration officials and interviews” the paper had “with union officials who had spoken with staff members at the centre” and they also aligned with other teenagers statements taken by two aid organizations, the Refugee Council and Humans for Rights Network: “One boy, a 16-year-old from Sudan, said he had spent nearly three weeks sleeping on discarded food boxes with just one set of soggy clothes – an experience, he noted, that reminded him of the harsh conditions he had endured in Libya’s detention camps” (Euan Ward, NYT, 4 November 2022). 

“A case of MRSA has been reported at the congested asylum processing centre at Manston in Kent”, Diane Taylor and Peter Walker revealed on 30 October in The Guardian, adding: “The Manston site is understood to now have at least eight confirmed cases of diphtheria, a highly contagious and potentially serious bacterial infection. … The Home Office has declined to comment on reports of MRSA or the current number of confirmed diphtheria cases. … Although diphtheria is a notifiable disease, meaning cases must be reported to authorities, those at Manston have not appeared on weekly public health reports”.

Lucy Moreton, an officer and former general secretary of the Union for Borders, Immigration and Customs, confirmed “that illnesses such as drug-resistant staphylococcus infections, scabies and diphtheria had all been detected among asylum seekers at Manston” and that “there were just three general practice doctors at the facility and that they were working 16 hours a day” (Euan Ward, NYT, 4 November 2022). She informed PA News Agency on 1 November 2022 that “nothing is being done to relieve the pressure on staff. We have asked the Home Office for increased support, for wellbeing and mental health services and for assurances to address staff concerns around the legality of instructions they are being given, the sustainability for the short and medium term and any ongoing threat to staff. The Home Office have not replied”.

As one asylum seeker who was at Manston Camp for one and a half weeks stated in an article by Amelia Gentleman and Rajeev Syal (The Guardian, 3 November 2022): “There were about 170 or 180 people sleeping in one tent; there were no beds, we slept on the floor. … There were three toilets, which were very dirty. There were two showers, but one was not working. … There was no laundry. … Most people had bad itching on their bodies”. Holly Bancroft in The Independent (3 November 2022) reported that over the past weekend, “hundreds of refugees were forced to sleep on pieces of cardboard on plywood floors because there are no beds to accommodate them”.

Gentleman and Syal additionally reported that “lawyers on behalf of the charity Detention Action and a woman held at Manston have sent an urgent pre-action letter to the Home Office. It is the first action against the home secretary for ‘the unlawful treatment of people held at the facility’. In a further development, Braverman is facing demands from the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, to launch an urgent review of how dozens of people have been abandoned in the capital. A young asylum seeker from Afghanistan was among the group of 11 people left on the street outside Victoria station”. 

Kurdish children asylum seekers are amongst those scandalously ‘processed’ by the Home Office as ‘adults’ 

Another asylum seeker who had been left in this way outside Victoria station after being processed at Manston Camp (as reported by Gentleman and Syal) stated that “he was 15, but had been age-assessed by the Home Office during the 25 days he was at the Manston Immigration Holding Centre and registered as 20. He said he had been alarmed to find himself in London with nowhere to stay. ‘I was very scared. I hadn’t eaten anything. It was almost 12 o’clock at night and we were left by the road. There were a lot of us on the bus who didn’t have any family or friends to stay with’. … He said Home Office staff had not returned his belongings to him before he left the camp, and so he was without his mobile phone and had been unable to contact his family for about a month” since reaching the UK.

It has also been suggested in several articles and reports that the Home Office’s screening process to send asylum seeking children to Rwanda is being conducted in a scandalous and irresponsible manner, not least in the way it reportedly has inaccurately registered and processed several children as adults (even at Manston), making it easier to deport them to Rwanda.A report by Diane Taylor in The Guardian (1 November 2022) stated that “child asylum seekers who have recently arrived in the UK on small boats say screening officials have put pressure on them to say they are adults. … In some cases, the children say they were told that if they said they were over 18, they would be able to leave the troubled asylum processing site of Manston in Kent more quickly. … The Refugee Council also provided information about three recent interviews their staff carried out with Kurdish boys from Iraq and Iran who made the same claims. A fifth child made the same allegation to the NGO Humans for Rights Network”.

Taylor additionally reported that “one of the three Kurdish boys interviewed by Refugee Council staff said: ‘I was interviewed three times, they asked me all the time about my age. They told me unless you accept you’re an adult, we’re not going to do anything for you … The boys” reportedly “spoke of being put under pressure to say that they were older, and told to ‘change’ their date of birth. They spoke of being held at Manston under inhumane conditions”. 

Reports by the Refugee Council and Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit have additionally established that children were being wrongly classified as adults, placing them at risk. The executive director of services at the Refugee Council, Renae Mann, was reported by Taylor as confirming that “this autumn, our staff have seen unprecedented and overwhelming numbers of unaccompanied refugee children who are being incorrectly identified by immigration officers as adults. We have recently supported over 70 children in one adult hotel alone. Some children who were housed at Manston told us that they were pressured by officials to say that they were adults with the promise that they would be moved more quickly to adult accommodation. This is extremely concerning”. 

In evaluating possible motives for such actions, Maddie Harris, of Humans for Rights Network (as reported by Taylor in The Guardian), has remarked that “it is in the interest of the government to treat these children as adults as it provides them with opportunity to remove them from the UK. We have already been contacted by children treated as adults with letters stating the Home Office’s intention to remove them to Rwanda. We were also told by a child who arrived recently, that upon arrival in Dover, he was told by officials that if he did not say he was an adult, he would be held in Manston for some weeks and that nobody would help him”.

Margaret Owen: ‘This home secretary is demonising refugees. She is breaking the law’

Margaret Owen, Pragna Patel and Dr Annette Lawson at the protest

It was as a result of these types of Home Office policies and practices that “we were in London, we demonstrated the other day”, Margaret Owen explained, because “this home secretary is demonising refugees. She is breaking the law. Apart from anything else, she has also broken the ministerial code, and she even lied about what she actually did when she, as it were, confessed that she had used her personal email to send, really, government classified documents not just once but six times. She broke the ministerial code and she resigned when she was found out. So, it’s extraordinary that she should now come back, having shown that she’s lied, and she is breaking the law.

“I was really proud in the protest to be standing next to Pragna Patel, who is the director and founding member of Southall Black Sisters”, Owen noted, “who has worked tirelessly over the decades on behalf of migrant women, women from ethnic communities and our eminent UK feminist, Dr Annette Lawson OBE, the ambassador for the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations and a well-known campaigner on women’s rights and I know that we were supported by many other people”. 

Owen: Suella Braverman’s ‘obsession is to send asylum seekers to Rwanda’

These various reasons (stated above), Margaret Owen noted, explain why she and others have protested over Braverman’s position as home secretary and voiced their concerns that her position is untenable. In these circumstances, “we are women who will speak truth to power. And also, she’s still talking about her dream!” (At a panel event during the recent Conservative Party Conference, hosted by The Daily Telegraph, Braverman stated that she “would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda by Christmas. That’s my dream. That’s my obsession”).

“Her obsession”, Margaret Owen observed, “is to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, when we know Rwanda is the most unsafe place. Even our own British ambassador, the UK ambassador to Rwanda, told the government months ago that Rwanda was no place to send anyone, and yet she is doing so.

“Suella Braverman talked about a complete chaos of our immigration policy but the Tory government has been in power for the last 12 years and it’s just outrageous the way that they have demonised refugees. We are also ashamed that the two previous Home Secretaries, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman [during her first period as Home Secretary from 6 September 2022 – 19 October 2022; her second period began on 25 October 2022], both of them daughters of immigrant families, should be demonising ethnic minorities and refugees and asylum seekers. It’s shameful”, Owen concluded.

A September 2022 report by Medical Justice concluded that “the UK government has entered a cruel and unconscionable agreement, which will forcibly remove people who have come to the UK seeking safety and protection to Rwanda, with no return to the UK. Vulnerable asylum seekers are already paying the human cost of the agreement, before any removals have taken place. The agreement has been widely condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, parliamentary committees, campaigners, legal bodies and medical experts. The government has been criticised for undermining the asylum system by shirking its international responsibility and challenged on the legality of this agreement”.

It is already known that alongside Kurds, Syrian, Sudanese, Iranian, Vietnamese and Afghan nationals have been among those notified by the government of their impending deportation to Rwanda (Lubbock, Left Foot Forward, 14 June 2022). A 29 May 2022 ITN News report by Anushka Asthana revealed that “asylum seekers who face being sent to Rwanda are being given just seven days to provide reasons in writing as to why they shouldn’t be deported. … The latest documents make it explicit that people will be penalised for taking risks in their travels to Britain by adding: ‘If the journey you have made to the UK may be described as having been dangerous, you may be eligible for relocation’. The letters show that people detained have seven days to submit information, while those outside of detention have 14. After that, their cases can be concluded as inadmissible”. 

The ITN News report further revealed that “asylum seekers are then handed information pamphlets, one of which is entitled: ‘I’m being relocated to Rwanda. What does this mean for me?’ This document contains a map, and starts by asking where is Rwanda? It answers: ‘Rwanda is in central Africa. If you were to look at a world map, Rwanda is located just south of the equator’. It also seeks to sell Rwanda to individuals by describing it as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ with ‘striking landscape’ and ‘a wide array of wildlife and biodiversity’”.

Just as troublingly, ITN News confirmed that “people claiming asylum are told … to declare if they are disabled, pregnant, have a serious illness, or have been subject to torture, rape or other forms of sexual violence. However, that doesn’t appear to stop any deportations as the section adds: ‘If you tell us your medical details and it is decided that you will be sent to Rwanda, we will ask your permission to share your medical information with Rwanda’. Lawyers who have seen individuals being served with these papers”, ITN News reported, “said that some hadn’t spoken to a legal representative until they came to the duty advice clinic in detention, where they are allocated a 30-minute slot for advice. The Home Office also hasn’t provided a translation of the documents from English”.

Initially promoted by home secretary Priti Patel and currently by Suella Braverman, the Rwanda plans have sought – from the outset – to deport Kurdish asylum seekers, amongst targeted ‘Others’, to Rwanda. As John Lubbock reported on 14 June this year, “as the UK prepares to deport the first asylum seekers to Rwanda, over half of those likely to be deported are revealed to be Kurdish. … 57% of asylum seekers due to be deported” on the first booked flight “to Rwanda are Kurdish. … According to BBC Persian reporter Parham Ghobadi, four of the seven asylum seekers at detention centres in London who are due to be deported to Rwanda are Kurds. Two of the three Iranian detainees are Kurdish, as well as another two from Iraq, out of seven people due to be deported. … Now, the government’s threats to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is re-traumatising Kurdish” – as with other – “asylum seekers who have already reached the UK, who fear that they will be deported to Rwanda if their applications are unsuccessful” (Left Foot Forward, 14 June 2022). 

It should be noted that the first attempt by the UK government to carry out a deportation flight to Rwanda was only cancelled “after a last-minute intervention by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR accepted an appeal from a 54-year-old Kurdish asylum seeker and alleged torture victim from Iraq whose deportation case remain[ed] under judicial review in the UK” (Middle East Eye, 17 June 2022).

The ECHR “indicated to the UK government that the applicant should not be removed to Rwanda until three weeks after the delivery of the final domestic decision in his ongoing judicial review proceedings. … After a number of successful appeals, the number of refugees originally set to be put on the first flight to the African country dropped from 130 to seven” (with four of the seven being Kurds). Whilst that flight was cancelled, “the UK government has promised it will push on with the policy and has promised legislation to allow it to ignore certain rulings from the ECHR”, noted Alex MacDonald and Kareem Botane (Middle East Eye, 17 June 2022).

This is despite the fact that internal documents revealed in a high court case indicate that the home secretaries Priti Patel and Suella Braverman have chosen to ignore key advice: “What the documents show”, Taylor reported in The Guardian (9 September 2022), “beginning with a diplomatic telegram from the British high commissioner to Rwanda … are repeated concerns about the unsuitability of Rwanda as a destination country for asylum seekers. The high commissioner expressed alarm about a lack of freedom of speech and the disappearance of opponents of the country’s president, Paul Kagame”.

Indeed, “as the plans developed, the criticisms from government officials multiplied: extrajudicial killings; the recruitment of refugees to conduct armed operations in neighbouring countries, including children aged 15-17 to fight across Rwanda’s border in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; a red traffic-light rating in relation to human rights and a clear recommendation made to the director general at the Home Office on 23 April 2021 not to pursue Rwanda as an option” (The Guardian, 9 September 2022).

The high court case disclosures revealed that “Rwanda was not on the shortlist of seven countries with which to further explore the plans. Indeed, it was on a separate list of 14 countries to not do a deal with. … On 27 July, a stark warning about Rwanda was issued due to ‘human rights concerns and reputational risk’” (The Guardian, 9 September 2022). Yet, by 29 July, Rwanda had been officially prioritised by the government and home secretaries since have fiercely advocated in favour of the arrangement.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has also raised its concerns “about refoulement – forcing a refugee or asylum seeker to return to a country or territory where they are likely to face persecution – and an underdeveloped” – if not prejudicial – “system to process individual asylum claims” where “almost all LGBTQ+ asylum seekers had left Rwanda due to an inability to progress their claims there and it identified a 100% refusal rate for Afghan, Syrian” – inclusive of Syrian Kurds – “and Yemeni cases. Many of the people the Home Office wants to send to Rwanda”, Taylor confirmed in a 9 September Guardian article, “come from these countries”.

Since June, many asylum seekers, including children, have been informed of the intention by the Home Office to deport them to Rwanda. The Independent reported on 13 October 2022 that “the government wants to send small boat migrants to Rwanda within just three weeks of their arrival in the UK, a court has heard”. It remains Suella Braverman’s ‘dream’ to deport people in this manner to Rwanda by this Christmas.

For Margaret Owen, “I, of course, as a patron of Peace in Kurdistan, am looking at how this appalling and unlawful Rwanda policy, conceived by two women ministers, both daughters of emigrants, affects Kurdish asylum seekers. I am also highly conscious that the welcoming this government has given so overwhelmingly to Ukrainian refugees was of course racist in the sense that it has shown little concern for others fleeing conflicts and violence such as Kurds, Tamils, Africans, Afghans – those with brown or black skins, many of whom have died in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and in the English Channel, or nearly frozen to death on the Polish-Belarus border. We do not welcome ‘them’. If any plane managed to take off to Kigali in Rwanda with Kurds among the passengers, one can have legitimate concerns that on arrival, the Rwandan authorities may force them into joining the M23, the mercenaries raiding North Kivu in Eastern Congo”.

Braverman: ‘The invasion on our southern coast’

Concerning Suella Braverman’s recent statement in parliament that “the British people deserve to know which party is serious about stopping the invasion on our southern coast and which is not”, Owen added: “I think the word ‘invasion’ is absolutely horrific and disgusting because that looks as if the refugees” – many of whom are Kurdish – “are enemies. They’re not. They’re people who need our help. We could all be refugees. I myself am the grand-daughter of a refugee or economic migrant. All of us from some part of our family history have come from somewhere else. To use the word ‘invasion’ was absolutely unacceptable.   

“And lastly, I would say, I am a lawyer. Suella Braverman claims to be a lawyer [from 13 February 2020 – 6 September 2022, she was appointed as the attorney general for England and Wales and advocate general for Northern Ireland] and here we have a lawyer who is openly saying it is perfectly alright to break the law, to break our international obligations under such conventions as the Refugee Convention”. 

As Tom Peck similarly commented in The Independent on 19 October 2022: “As attorney general, it was her job to provide independent legal advice to the government. … Braverman … had to provide advice on whether there would be any legal problems with regard to the government’s self-declared plan to break international law ‘in a specific and limited way’. She found no such problems. … 

“At the Tory party conference, she received a standing ovation for her promise to ‘take back control’ and stop the European Court of Human Rights from intervening to declare the government’s Rwanda deportation policy illegal. There is only one real way to do that, and that is to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. … [At] the Tory conference, her speech was clapped like mad, as it reached yet further into dubious legal territory. She, the government’s former legal adviser, described herself as a ‘recovering’ lawyer, and took aim at the lawyers who had thus far held up the Rwanda plan – in other words, sought to uphold the law”.

By these very actions, Owen concluded, “she is putting our own country in terrible jeopardy because she is breaking the law. We can be sued in the courts and there will be huge costs to our country. She’s actually destroying any reputation this country ever had for fairness and justice. And also, with her predecessor Priti Patel, she has broken the law by opening an Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) in Hassockfield (renamed Derwentside IRC) in County Durham, locking up 85 traumatised women asylum seekers. This is against the law and this is being condemned by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and by Enver Solomon, the head of the Refugee Council”. 

Owen: ‘It is not a crime to be a refugee and to ask for asylum’

Owen, in conclusion, stressed that “it is not a crime to be a refugee and to ask for asylum. It is not a question of how you got here because there are no legal routes left except to come in the small boats. It’s why you got here. And that’s why we demonstrated. Remember, even if we say that it’s mainly young men that she intends to send to other countries. The government has a policy in which it wants to make our overseas aid – which has already gone down from 7.7% to 5% without parliamentary approval – conditional on the poorest countries in the world taking our unwanted refugees, like they have to take our unwanted waste. 

“Well, this affects women. If men are sent away, what happens to their women? Their children? So, everything that happens always will disproportionally impact upon the women who are left behind. It’s also been a sort of red herring to keep talking about ‘Albanian men’ as if most of the people who come are ‘criminal Albanian men’”. 

The home secretary, meanwhile, visited Manston Camp in a highly controversial manner, playing on the enemy “invasion” theme and adopting an almost at-war like stance for the media and right-wing supporters. “Overly martial language of grim dystopian movies” was used by government spokespersons to hammer home the point. As reported by Marina Hyde in The Guardian (4 November 2022), the current home secretary used a Chinook military helicopter “to fly the distance of precisely 19 miles between Dover and Manston … as she sought to aggressively cosplay a complex problem into simply going away. Will it work? … Some of those following this Kent visit will also have noted a starring role for the phrase ‘on the ground’. ‘She’s on the ground’, explained the prime minister’s spokeswoman of Braverman, ‘visiting Western Jet Foil and Manston’. A No 10 spokesperson echoed this: ‘The home secretary was in Dover to receive an update on operations on the ground’. The official government readout of the visit explained that Braverman had been Braverman-ing ‘with Border Force officers, military and other personnel on the ground’”.

What does this ‘enemy’ refugee (classed mostly as a ‘migrant’) ‘threat’ represent? In response to a previous Home Office Minister Priti Patel’s account of high ‘migrant’ numbers attempting to enter the UK, and her parliamentary statement on 22 November 2021 that “the number of people coming into our country illegally on small boats is unacceptable”, as Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, in a House of Lords debate that took place the day after the deaths of the 27 boat people in the Channel (many of them Kurds), stated: “First, overall refugee numbers are currently running at about half of where they were 20 years ago. We are” also, he clarified, “not the preferred destination in Europe”, as is often suggested. “We are (…) well down the list of preferred destinations”. 

As Baroness Hamwee had noted in a House of Lords debate at the time, citing official figures, the UK received just 8% of the total asylum applicants across the EU+ and UK combined recently, placing it 17th on the countries list when measured per head of population. “Secondly,” Lord Kerr noted, “Yes, small boat numbers are up, partly for the reason the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, adduced – the fences, patrols and heat sensors around the train tracks and marshalling yards mean that people” – including many Kurds – “are now driven to the even more dangerous sea route. But the principal reason clandestine numbers are up is that [many] official resettlement routes are shut. … 

“We have closed the Syrian scheme, we have scrapped the Dubs scheme, we have left Dublin III and we have not got an [effective] Afghan scheme up and running. … In the last 18 months, 3,187 Iranians came [to the UK]. In the same period, one got in by the official route. How many came from Yemen” – where the world’s worst humanitarian crisis was taking place at the time – during “these 18 months? Yemen is riven by civil war and famine. None came by the official route – not one”.

Stuart McDonald MP had also noted with alarm that the provisions in the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill – many of which were subsequently passed into law – risked “endangering, criminalising, delaying, warehousing, offshoring and depriving” asylum seekers and refugees of “their rights – those who simply seek our protection. 

“The Uyghur, the Syrian and the persecuted Christian … as well as the Afghans who are now in danger … all face … bleak impacts. … Contrary to the claims that the Bill is about safe routes, it actually does not add a single one, while threatening to restrict vital family reunion rights, pushing more people towards smugglers and dangerous crossings. … If Afghans, Syrians, Uyghurs, Christian converts or others,” he noted, “are at risk of persecution in their countries of nationality, their mere entry or arrival for the purposes of seeking asylum” should not be “a crime. Is it not extraordinary that that very idea has to be debated?

 “To put it directly, what we have here is a deliberate policy decision to inflict harm on people seeking sanctuary by criminalising them, splitting them from their family, forcing them into destitution, putting them in legal limbo and offshoring them. That is not just ineffective and dangerous but morally outrageous”. 

To add to this, asylum seekers – including Kurds – arriving in small boats from across the Channel have illegally had their mobile phones confiscated as part of an undeclared (at one point denied) asylum policy. These acts often scandalously resulted in asylum seekers not being able to access valuable data and documentation (stored in their mobile phones) that they would have needed to prove the validity of their refugee status. As noted by Daniel Carey of Deighton Pierce Glynn (representing asylum seekers in a High Court action): “Nearly 2,000 phones were taken from migrants in an indiscriminate blanket policy. All of this” – intentionally, as surely the Home Office would have known – “had real impacts on very vulnerable people, who lost touch with their families and couldn’t” – crucially from the standpoint of securing refugee status in their subsequent ‘processing’ by the Home Office – “get their asylum documentation, while the phones languished on a shelf for many months”. 

Only when this policy was publicly exposed in a High Court action did Sir James Eadie QC acknowledge “that the Home Office had breached its duty of candour in relation to initially failing to admit that the unpublished policy to seize phones existed. He said it was ‘extremely unfortunate’ and apologised”, only at that point. “The Home Office conceded that the way the seizure policy was previously implemented was unlawful” (Diane Taylor, The Guardian, 25 March 2022).

Apologies were made concerning “errors” that were made. Whilst the confiscation of the phones – i.e., “errors” on the part of the Home Office – would have certainly deprived many asylum seekers from being able to access key information to effectively prove their cases before the Home Office, Sir James Eadie, acting for the government, would only apologise in this manner: “‘The errors here were corporate errors. They were errors of the team, from counsel to government legal department to the Home Office. Everyone accepts that errors were made’. The previous home secretary, Priti Patel, has apologised for these errors” (as reported by Diane Taylor in The Guardian, 14 October 2022). 

No resignations or sackings appear to have been forthcoming from ‘the team’ as a result of their unlawful conduct and actions against asylum seekers that had made their way across the Channel. This is despite the fact that the judges in the High Court action determined that asylum seekers’ phones were “unlawfully seized by immigration officials” and there was “a failure of governance” in which “the department operated an unlawful, secret, blanket policy” against “asylum seekers arriving in the UK on small boats. … 

“During that case, the court heard evidence that asylum seekers were ‘bullied’ into handing over their passcodes so officials could unlock personal information including emails, photos and videos and download them to an intelligence database called Project Sunshine. … In a highly unusual move, there was a separate hearing in the high court … because the government failed in its ‘duty of candour’ and initially denied that the unpublished phone seizure policy [even] existed” (Diane Taylor, The Guardian, 14 October 2022).

In their strongly worded oral judgment, Mr Justice Lane and Lord Justice Edis expressed their concern over “a failure of governance which allowed an unlawful policy to operate for an unknown period of time” and made reference, as Taylor reported, “to government officials who ‘sidestepped’ and ‘ducked’ the issue of how the policy to seize phones was applied” (The Guardian, 14 October 2022).

Margaret Greenwood MP in July last year observed, moreover, that “by treating refugees differently, depending on how they arrive in the UK and the point at which they present themselves to authorities, the Bill” – later made law after some revisions, in a highly discriminatory manner targeting asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats – “creates a two-tier system. As the Immigration Law Practitioners Association has pointed out, ‘the introduction of differential treatment of refugees depending on how they came to the UK or made their claim cuts against the principles motivating the 1951 UN Refugee Convention’. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has pointed out that ‘the right to seek asylum is universal and does not depend on the mode of arrival; asylumseekers are often forced to arrive unauthorised’”. 

Steven Bonnar MP, last July as the Bill was going through the UK parliament, concluded that the government, by its actions, was “torching their international human rights obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. We as representatives in this place are in very real danger of assisting in the committing of crimes against humanity by turning our backs on those in need of safety and on how this Bill will criminalise these people. History will shame us all in every essence. … This legislation will be nothing short of a punishment to those fleeing war, persecution and human rights atrocities. 

“It will create an asylum system that undermines international law and will cost the already failing Home Office vast amounts of time and money. This legislation, despite the Government’s promises to increase safe and legal routes for people urgently requiring refuge around the world, will contain no such commitments whatsoever. … This is a cruel, callous piece of legislation that fails in both practical and moral terms and reneges on our international responsibilities. …

“The home secretary’s plans to send asylum seekers thousands of miles away, to be processed in third-world countries, are both insane and inhumane. The idea that asylum seekers can simply be shipped off somewhere else while those claims are assessed, is frankly a fantasy. Asylum seekers are people. They are human beings, not packages to be disposed of. … It could not be clearer: the home secretary is deliberately misinterpreting international law to pander to her own political base. That cannot be denied”. 

Suella Braverman, speaking in parliament recently in her capacity as home secretary, in downplaying the manner in which safe official routes for asylum have largely been closed to many refugees, forcing them to seek asylum through risky Channel crossing routes, instead sought to charge that “illegal migration is out of control” and represents “an invasion”. Care 4 Calais (as reported in The Guardian, 31 October 2022) condemned Braverman’s language as “incredibly offensive. … Refugees are escaping from conflicts – they know what being invaded feels like. We are lucky that many of us do not. To suggest they are committing an act of war when that is what they are fleeing is indefensible”. 

The director of the Oxford Migration Observatory, Madeleine Sumption, has also argued that “this is not an invasion – it’s not an army. But if instead she is referring to the number of people coming, we can compare the figures to other countries and see that the numbers coming in to the UK are relatively manageable”. Rajeev Syal reported in The Guardian (1 November 2022): “Seventeen EU countries” – including Cyprus, Austria, Malta, Greece, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium – “received larger numbers of asylum applications per capita last year, according to an analysis of official figures by the Oxford Migration Observatory”. 

BY DESMOND FERNANDES

Desmond Fernandes is a researcher at Mojust and a former Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and former Course Leader for the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (Law and Health Options) at De Montfort University. He is the author of The Kurdish and Armenian Genocides: From Censorship and Denial to Recognition? (Apec, Stockholm, 2007; Peri, Istanbul, 2013 – Turkish translation), Education, Human Rights Violations in Pakistan and the Scandal Involving UNHCR and Asylum Seekers in Thailand (BPCA, London, 2016 2nd updated edition) and Call it by its name: ‘Persecution!’ (BPCA, London, 2019). He has co-authored several books including The Education System in Pakistan: Discrimination and the Targeting of the ‘Other’ (BPCA, London, 2014) and The Targeting of ‘Minority Others’ in Pakistan (BPCA, London, 2013). 

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