The Nationality and Borders Bill received royal assent on Thursday 28 April 2022, and passed into British law becoming a UK Public General Act (“The Act”). The Act has changed the UK’s stance on nationality, immigration and asylum and has garnered attention on an international scale for its rigorous approach towards asylum seekers. The Act was introduced with the intention of ‘breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger’, and its passing has intensified the Governments push towards disincentivizing asylum seeking in the UK.
The Government’s most recent implementation of this Act will see asylum seekers classed as ‘unauthorised migrants’ to be deported to Rwanda. The Home Office has issued formal removal directions and Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced that the first deportation flight is scheduled to leave on the 14th of June 2022. This announcement comes in the wake of an £120 million Migration and Economic Development Partnership made with the Rwandan Government to outsource asylum processing offshore. The new migration and economic partnership means that “anyone arriving in the U.K. illegally as well as those who have arrived illegally since January 1 may now be relocated to Rwanda” [Boris Johnson].
Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated the Government’s stance that such practice will “disrupt the business model of the gangs because it means economic migrants taking advantage of the asylum system will not stay in the U.K” [Kent, 14 April 2022]. These deterrent tactics are at the core of the Act and form part of the overall directive of creating a two-tier refugee classification system based on how asylum seekers arrive in the UK. Section 12 ‘Differential treatment of refugees’, creates a secondary class of refugees who are privy to lesser rights to asylum than those who arrive directly from a ‘territory where their life or freedom was threatened’ and present themselves to the authorities without delay. Whilst Section 19 ‘Removal of asylum seeker to safe country’, enforces amendments into the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 which enable the Government to remove asylum seekers to a safe third country whilst their claim for asylum is pending.
Both Sections form as part of the framework of the Government to discourage asylum seekers to find sanctuary in the UK. This move away from establishing a safe ground for refugees is a departure from the essence of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol (“Refugee Convention”), which imbues a sense of shared responsibility amongst member states to offer protection to those seeking refuge. The move to differentiate refugees into separate classes has been criticised heavily by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who shared his disappointment that the UK “would choose a course of action aimed at deterring the seeking of asylum by relegating most refugees to a new, lesser status with few rights and a constant threat of removal” [27.04.2022].
During the preliminary stages of the Act it was emphasised that the Governments ‘first safe country’ policy is impractical due to the geographical location of the UK and it being an island surrounded by water. Therefore, any insinuation that asylum seekers should claim asylum at the first safe country in which they arrive is a flagrant attempt by the Government to shift their responsibilities onto other states. Whilst the Government has stated they have specific schemes introduced to allow asylum seekers to seek sanctuary in an authorised manner, it disregards the fact that international law places no obligation on asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they find themselves. The Government has been keen to illustrate asylum seekers as making treacherous journeys cross-border, risking their lives and fuelling the business of criminalised gangs and people smugglers; however they continue to disregard the emotional and psychological turmoil that such refugees find themselves in. Omar an asylum seeker in the UK who fled an assassination attempt in Afghanistan told the Guardian, “people gamble their lives when they cross the Channel, you’re prepared to sacrifice everything for the chance to live in a peaceful society in the UK. It wasn’t something I did for fun; I came to this country to save my life” [Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian, ‘This is not the answer: asylum-seeker in UK slams Rwanda plans’ 14 April 2022].
Whilst the UK and Rwandan government look forward to their initial 5-year agreement to offshore asylum seeking, many have critiqued the human rights track record of the Rwandan government and the restrictions placed on civil and political rights within the country. Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Vincent Biruta, has emphasised that Rwanda provides sanctuary to ‘over 130,000 refugees from multiple countries’ and how this deal is an opportunity for asylum seekers to start a new life;
“By relocating migrants to Rwanda, investing in their personal development, and providing education, employment, and other opportunities we are giving them the chance to make new lives in our country as full members of our communities. This will not only help them, but it will bring benefits to Rwanda and Rwandans, and help to advance our own development. And for those who don’t wish to make Rwanda their new home, they will be facilitated to return to their country of origin, or settled in other receiving countries”.
[Remarks By Hon. Minister Dr. Vincent Biruta, UK & Rwanda Migration And Economic Development Partnership Press Conference, Kigali, 14 April 2022].
Nevertheless, both Governments fail to acknowledge the emotional distress faced by those asylum seekers who have received deportation notices, and they are still yet to reassure refugees that their welfare will be safeguarded in a country where they have no community, no family and no guarantee of security for their human rights. Refugee charity Care4Calais estimate “over 70% of those with Rwanda notices have suffered torture or trafficking either in their home countries or on the incredibly dangerous journeys they have made. As a result, many have serious physical and mental scars and are finding the intense stress of detention, coupled with the threat of being sent to Rwanda, intolerable” [04 June 2022]. Whilst the Home Office have reassured that their “assessments have found that Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers”, their claims that the UNHCR has given these plans a ‘green light’ were disputed in High Court by Raza Hussain QC and by the UN refugee agency themselves. The UNHCR voiced in High Court their concerns regarding ‘discriminatory access to asylum, including LGBT people, a lack of legal representation and interpreters, and difficulties in appealing’ alongside asserting that the agreement made by the UK is “incompatible with the letter and spirit of the 1951 Convention” [10 June 2022].
The High Court will hear a number of further legal challenges to be brought by refugee charities and lawyers who have sought a judicial review of the plan, alongside requests for an injunction to block the deportation flight on the 14th of June. Whilst the Government has made it known that these legal challenges are simply the interference of ‘lefty lawyers’, there is real consideration to be given as to why the Government has scheduled the flight for the 14th of June when the legislation upon which they can rely comes into force on the 28th of June. Immigration Law Barrister Steven Galliver-Andrew told the BBC “the law which allows the government to do this doesn’t appear to come into force until the 28th of June 2022. What they are doing can and will be challenged – and they know and expect that” [Mohamed Shalaby and Emir Nader, BBC News Arabic ‘Asylum seekers stage hunger strike as UK prepares Rwanda deportation’ 03 June 2022]. Discussions surrounding the irregularities of the Government have been seen as their attempts to play politics with the lives of asylum seekers. It is evident that these legal challenges have basis, as the Government disclosed in High Court they issued three cancellations of deportation orders for migrants who had challenged their notices. However despite this small success for those migrants, the Government reiterated in High Court they will remain steadfast in disputing further legal challenges and attempts to ground the flight on the 14th of June.
Whilst the Government have been ‘transparent’ in their motives behind the intended deportation of asylum seekers offshore. It cannot be ignored that punishing those who attempt to seek refuge will not destabilise or break ‘the evil people smugglers’. For the Government to expect that a business model that is built on transporting asylum seekers, will somehow implement a policy of honesty is highly improbable, “the smugglers will tell people that the rules won’t apply to them, they will tell them that everything will be fine. They will continue to charge people between £4,000 and £10,000 to cross” [Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian, ‘This is not the answer: asylum-seeker in UK slams Rwanda plans’ 14 April 2022].
The UK public has been praised for their welcoming, ‘open-arms’, approach to recent Ukrainian refugees who found themselves displaced and seeking sanctuary. The resistance that the Act faced during Parliamentary stages showcased that the Government’s own members were appalled by the stance being taken towards asylum seekers. The Government in their insistence of deportation to Rwanda are showcasing to the world on an international, and very visible scale, that the UK will not welcome asylum seekers. They are showing disregard to their shared responsibility owed to the international community and as a member state of the Refugee Convention. It should be evident to the Government, with the number of legal challenges raised, that refugees should not be criminalised for fleeing to safety and the solution to penalising traffickers cannot and should not be found in punishing those trafficked and seeking sanctuary.
Research Intern, Act for Displaced
She graduated from The University of Derby (LLB Law) with a first class honours and completed her legal education (LPC/LLM) with commendation at Nottingham Law School. She has a passion for refugee rights and human rights law.