“Stop the boats”.
This is the harrowing message sprawled across the front of Rishi Sunak’s podium as he addresses his audience during a speech aimed at setting out the core political goals of the current Conservative government.
The image that he is trying to project here is one where he appears as the tough and staunch defender of the British Isles protecting us from the waves of “others” trying to illegally invade our shores. At least, I’m sure that’s how he wants his speech and the slogan in front of him to be seen.
This poses as a warning sign for anyone even considering coming to Britain to flee war or persecution. This a warning sign for anyone hoping for a better life, one free from pain and terror. One for those trying to protect their children or to reunite with their family.
Of course, Rishi Sunak believes this will act as a warning sign for criminal gangs who are involved in the perpetuation of illegal crossings… but what Sunak and his cabinet members think and what reality is are two very different things.
“Stop the boats” comes across as more of a desperate plea, rather than a powerful statement and it has a pungent waft of desperation about it.
In his speech, Rishi Sunak set out the five main priorities of the UK Government. These were to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists, and stop the boats… all leaving us with more questions than answers, but none other than the final.
“Stop the boats”, is an incredibly loaded statement. Most people probably agree that something needs to be done about the small boats crossing the English Channel, however, there is disagreement about why it needs to be resolved and what the most desirable outcome is.
Let’s first look at what the current government is proposing and what their preferred result is and why these proposals are deeply unsettling rather than acting as a warning sign to refugees (a strange sentiment in itself) and criminal gangs they instead should be seen as a warning sign to anyone who cares about basic human rights.
Rishi Sunak has announced laws that are aimed at making it impossible for people who enter Britain through small boat passages across the English Channel from being able to claim asylum in the UK. The legislation itself will be designed to make claims for asylum from individuals who have gained entry to the UK on small boats inadmissible. The Illegal Migration Bill, as it is currently named, involves an obligation being allocated to the Home Secretary - currently Suella Braverman - to deport and re-locate asylum seekers who are deemed to have entered the UK illegally to Rwanda or a ‘safe’ third country.
Individuals who journey to the UK through small boat crossings will not be permitted to claim asylum whilst in Britain and the bill will also stop these refugees from being able to return to the UK at any point in the future. This, according to the UK Government, will act as a deterrent to anyone considering making a small boat journey into Britain.
The desired outcome here for the UK Government is to put a stopper on the number of refugees entering the country at all costs. The point is to barricade the entry points with reinforced steel… not to save lives or create safe and legal passages for refugees seeking asylum and sanctuary in the UK.
What a mess.
Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up and see if any areas of agreement can be found and where it is that it all starts to go Pete Tong.
Can we agree on anything? Well, maybe one thing. That is that the illegal practice of smuggling people into the UK through small boat crossings needs to be stopped. I think at this point I and the UK Government go our separate paths, never to meet again, on pretty much every other ideological and practical point of interest concerning this issue.
Firstly, why is it that the boats need to stop? The UK Government appears to be spinning the narrative that they need to stop as they pose some kind of serious threat to society and life in Britain. The gradual dialling up of fear-mongering finally reached its peak when we witnessed the Prime Minister presenting a speech with “Stop the boats” written across a lectern in front of him. This begs the question as to whether he is reflecting the genuine level of national concern or if he is exaggerating the extent of public concern and has instead just ramped up the ante about this issue.
What I would suggest instead? Well, aye, the crossings need to be tackled… but the reason they need to be put to an end is that people are dying and suffering greatly due to these crossings. This includes men, women, children, and even babies. It has led to further trauma and suffering in each of the individual cases who have already suffered such extreme levels of hardship. The exact number of people who have died is unknown but in 2020 the Institute of Race Relations estimated that around 300 people, including 36 children, have died whilst attempting to make the crossings on makeshift dinghies or in some cases trying to swim the Channel.
What we’re dealing with here is a human rights issue. The rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are enshrined in and shielded by international law. This is the case irrespective of how they enter a country or why they have had to seek entry. These individuals are provided with the same rights as everyone else alongside extra protections. For example, Article 14 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that every person who is fleeing persecution has the right to seek and receive asylum from another country and the (1951) UN Refugee Convention stops refugees from being sent back to countries where they are in danger of being persecuted. The UK Government’s claim that those making the small boat journeys are economic migrants has been largely debunked. The majority of people trying to make these crossings are fleeing persecution from war-torn or unstable countries and without asylum would be subject to horrendous suffering. As such, they fit the bill.
Braverman herself is on record having said that she believed there was a more than 50% chance that the Illegal Migration Bill was going to breach human rights laws. Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency has said it has serious concerns about the details of the bill that would put it in obvious conflict with the (1951) UN Refugee Convention.
Experts have also highlighted that the bill is likely to conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) on a range of issues; including torture, detention, fair trial, discrimination and slavery. As a result, the bill would almost certainly be challenged by the European Court of Human Rights which investigates any potential breaches of the convention. This has resulted in some Tory backbenchers suggesting leaving the ECHR. A seriously terrifying prospect for anyone who values human rights, freedoms and basic dignity.
So, what are some of the solutions to this issue? Well, the issue is complex, but the answer is deceptively simple. Most importantly, we need to fix the broken asylum system and make sure that there are safe and legal routes to claiming and gaining asylum in Britain. Currently, the operating system is highly limited with resettlement schemes, refugee family reunion schemes and three other legal routes functioning between Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan as potential access routes. It is worth it noting that not all of these pathways offer refugee status to claimants. Claimants need to meet the eligibility criteria and a set of conditions if they wish to stay in the UK.
So, first, the number of routes offered needs to be expanded to more countries. If people cannot claim asylum legally, they will be forced to resort to alternatives which are significantly more dangerous.
Secondly, we need to fix the delay in claim decisions and the backlog of people waiting for a decision which has built up as a result. The Institute for Government reported that in December 2022 the number of asylum seekers who had been waiting for a decision for longer than six months was 110,000 (or two-thirds). The government should attempt to alleviate some of the strain which is placed upon the asylum system by fast-tracking and accelerating the rate of decision-making within the system.
What else can we do?
The UK Government can begin to reinvest in projects which are aimed at improving infrastructure in unstable countries to create security in these countries. Through this type of support, it may be possible to reduce some of the global conflicts which occur and subsequently cause people to flee to survive. This was the role of the Department for International Development (DfID), however, this department has now been shut down and has been integrated into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. If all these goals are met effectively, at least in theory, the criminal gangs which are fueled by and profit off of the suffering of vulnerable individuals and families should be stunted and starved of business. If there are no refugees to smuggle, they can’t smuggle them.
Finally, the slogan “Stop the boats” rather than being a powerful and symbolic statement of a government taking the reins on a situation instead rings as the most extreme image of abject depravity to be allowed to be publicly touted by a government in some time. What is needed is cooperation, agreement and an internationally coordinated response. Not a senseless bolstering of our borders through anti-immigration and asylum policies. We currently exist during a period where border control has never been stricter but, yet, what do we have to show for it? Our public services are no better for it and our economy is in the worst shape it has been for a long time. Anti-immigration and asylum policies are not the answer and, let’s be honest, this is an anti-asylum and anti-refugee bill.
We need prompt and decisive action to make sure Britain is a safe place for refugees and those fleeing persecution. It’s about who we think we should be, not how they want us to be. Let’s look back and say we did our bit, we didn’t leave thousands of people to suffer and die needlessly. I believe that the policy of the UK Government is not only misguided, impractical and ineffective but also callous and inhumane. They are going in the wrong direction, and they are dragging us down with them.