Britain has set out details of a new law barring the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping boat arrivals one of his five key priorities, but his “Stop the Boats” campaign is viewed by humanitarian organizations as inhumane and the United Nations says it amounts to a clear breach of international law.
The new “Illegal Migration Bill” will mean anyone who arrives this way will be prevented from claiming asylum and deported either back to their own country or to so-called safe third countries.
It comes as Europe continues to try and find ways to stop people entering the continent rather than creating safe, accessible routes that would prevent tragedies, such as the one last week in Italy when over 70 migrants from countries including Afghanistan, Somalia and Syria died in a shipwreck.
William Neal, Detention Outreach Caseworker for Jesuit Refugee Service UK, explained that the measure effectively punishes refugees for the realities of being forcibly displaced.
“Essentially, this is a further measure from the UK government attempting to dissuade people from coming to the UK via small boat crossings across the English Channel,” Neal explained, noting that authorities are coming up with ways of quickly processing and removing those arriving from the sea “in an attempt to dissuade people from making the crossing.”
Explaining that details are still to be published regarding Tuesday’s announcement, Neal noted that those who arrive on small boats will be detained.
Their rights, within the first 28 days of their detention will be relatively limited in order to stop them from making applications for asylum whilst they are in detention.
“The idea,” he added, “is that the Home Office will make attempts to move those people either to their country of origin or to what they refer to as a ‘safe third country’, although what those safe third countries are, has not been released yet, aside from the ongoing Rwanda plan which is tied up in the courts in the UK for many months now.”
That plan, announced in April, and ruled lawful in December 2022, foresees people who arrive in the UK without a visa or other permission to enter the country sent to Rwanda to have their asylum claim processed and decided there.
“Essentially, the bill, as it stands at the moment,” Neal continued, “is attempting to punish people who arrive in the UK, having crossed the channel, as a way of sending a message of signalling to those who may be thinking of coming to the UK, that they are not welcome to make that journey.”
William Neal said that in his opinion it is also trying to bypass the responsibility the UK has within The Refugee Convention in order to limit the number of people that are granted asylum in the UK and is placing that responsibility on other countries.
The new bill comes at a time in which millions of people across the globe, and across Europe, are fleeing conflicts, persecution, climate change, poverty. It resounds as Europeans in particular grieve the death of over 70 men, women and children who drowned just meters from the Italian shore on 26 February.
“Obviously,” Neal noted, “people take these incredibly difficult decisions that do put their lives at risk – and nobody is under the impression that crossing the Channel or crossing the Mediterranean is not a risky route to take – in order to seek sanctuary. But we seem to be forgetting that people are facing persecution in their home country, that there isn’t a choice.”
If your house is on fire, the choice between fleeing your home and staying whilst it burns around you is not a choice that you have.
So, he continued people are forced into these incredibly difficult decisions, and if we genuinely want to stop them from making risky and dangerous journeys, “we need to discuss and provide ways in which people can safely travel to a country of sanctuary and settle there.
We also need to address the reasons why people are fleeing in the first place.
Observing that these two things go hand in hand and that migration will continue to be a defining issue of our time, also “in years to come,” he said “There is no silver bullet” or ready answer to these issues.
The answers to these questions are complex and multifaceted and will require the cooperation of many, many countries.
But, he highlighted, “punishing people for the reality of having to flee their home is not the answer.”
Pope Francis repeatedly calls for welcome protection, integration and promotion of our brothers and sisters on the move, and the Church in Europe persistently raises the question with policymakers. A voice, Neal said, that is “absolutely important.”
The more our communities speak up on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are fleeing these situations, the more we bring and build solidarity.
“It can often feel incredibly disheartening when a loud minority speak up and you feel like you’re constantly fighting this unwelcoming and hostile force,” Neal said, “But those communities of welcome, those communities of protection and integration, of support and solidarity with people who migrate, exist and are out there.”
He expressed his opinion that it is the responsibility of the Church to find ways to build solidarity, to allow those communities to prosper and grow, and to welcome those who are forced to flee.
Neal concluded by sounding the alarm that this bill in the UK and other similar policies in the making across Europe call us “as individuals and as a Church (…) to stand alongside those who are fleeing persecution and who are migrating.”
These aren’t going to be easy challenges, he said, they are complex and are destined to become more complex due to the effects of climate change that force people to move and migrate.
“We have a responsibility to stand alongside people because, as we’re seeing with this bill in the UK, “ he noted, also because “if the UK government is willing to erode the human rights of one group of people, then, as soon as that door is open, we don’t know where it will end.”
The church has the responsibility to all our brothers and sisters to stand alongside them.