Even as Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees continue to risk their lives by crossing the Channel to seek asylum, the UK government bears responsibility for generating global refugee movements (a forthcoming article will detail these concerns). The government’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed through the House of Commons last December, has been criticised from several quarters. It was severely criticised in the House of Lords on 5 January by Baroness Ludford (amongst others) who observed that “the hallmarks of this Bill are illegality and inhumanity.”
To Lord Taverne, the Bill promoted by the Home Secretary reveals that she “has not an ounce of compassion in her character. Indeed, for other reasons, she should no longer be a Minister; she should have been dismissed from office when the Prime Minister’s then adviser on the Ministerial Code ruled that her bullying behaviour at work had breached the code. She survived,” he noted, solely “because she is a loyal supporter of the Prime Minister.”
16 of the 27 people who drowned in the Channel were Kurds
Members of the House of Lords debated the Bill during its second reading, one and a half months after 27 people drowned trying to cross the Channel. Twenty-four-year-old Maryam Nuri Mohamed Amin from Iraqi Kurdistan was the first victim whose body was identified among the 27 people – including six other women, one of whom was pregnant and three children – who drowned while attempting to cross the Channel to the UK from France on 24 November.
Sixteen of the dead were “Iraqi Kurds, including four women, a 16-year-old teenager and a 7-year-old girl. The victims also included an Iranian Kurd.” Four of the dead were from Afghanistan.
Many foresee further such deaths and drownings of Kurdish and ‘Othered’ refugees as the UK government continues with its ‘hostile environment’ policies, plans and practices, and restricts or closes down ‘safe routes’ by which refugees can enter the UK to claim asylum. This ‘forces’ many desperate asylum seekers to risk crossing the Dover Strait, “the busiest shipping lane in the world,” where “many people have perished trying to cross to Britain in inflatable dinghies.”
Despite accusations by the UK Home Office that the account of a surviving Kurd was “completely untrue. (…) Officials here confirmed (…) that the incident” in which 27 drowned “happened well inside French Territorial Waters,” the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reported that Mohamed Shekha Ahmad, “a 21-year-old Kurd who is one of two survivors of the mass drowning of migrants on 24 November in the English Channel, (…) revealed that French and British police both ignored desperate pleas for help from the refugees as they drowned.
“This exposes cynical lies told by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French Prime Minister Jean Castex, and French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, blaming ‘people smugglers’ for migrant deaths off the coasts of Europe.”
The WSWS added: “Several hours” into the deathly journey, “the dinghy’s air tube began to leak massively, and large amounts of water came into the boat. (…) We called the French police and said: help us, our pump stopped working. Then we sent our location to the French police and they said, ‘You’re in British waters.’ (…) We called Britain. They said call the French police. Two people were calling, one was calling France and another was calling Britain.”
According to this account by a survivor, “both French and British police refused to help the drowning migrants, leaving them to die in freezing waters. ‘Britain should have come on board, because we drowned in the Channel. They didn’t help us or do anything for us,’ Mohamed said, adding that the dinghy had reached British waters. He explained, ‘British police didn’t help us and the French police said: You’re in British waters, we can’t come. Then, as we were slowly drowning, the people lost hope and let go.”
“Other accounts of the disaster,” the WSWS concluded, “bear out Mohamed’s account. The other survivor, a Somali (…) also said that the refugees contacted both French and British authorities. ‘Most of the calls were for Britain, asking for help,’ Omar said. ‘They could hear us, we were crying for help and we called twice, not once. We drowned in the British sea, we drowned in British waters.’
“A relative of one of the Kurdish victims of the disaster,” the WSWS observed, “confirmed Mohamed’s account. (…) Taha said he was in contact with the migrants via phone, tracking their location via Facebook. (…) ‘Forty-five minutes before they drowned, they called and said they were in British waters but could not move. They drowned in British waters, and the waves took the bodies to French waters.’ Taha ruled out the possibility that British or French police could have misunderstood the drowning migrants’ appeals for help. (…) ‘What happened is a crime, it’s not destiny or God’s will. It’s a crime committed by the two countries,’” he concluded.
A manslaughter lawsuit has been filed by the French humanitarian organisation Utopia 56. It “accuses the maritime prefect of the Channel and North Sea, the Regional Operational Centre for Surveillance and Rescue of Gris-Nez in the Pas-de-Calais and the British Coast Guard of not doing enough to prevent the deaths.” Utopia 56 added “that the people were abandoned ‘despite calls to the English and French rescue services.’ (…) In London, proceedings have also formally been launched by families of victims from Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Jeremy Corbyn MP, reflecting the perspectives of several opposition MP’s, stated last month that “the attacks on refugees and the attacks on people who support refugees” via this Bill “are nothing but appalling and disgusting.”
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty stated that the Bill “attacks the rights not just of the small numbers of refugees the Tories are trying to present as some kind of overwhelming tide, but of vast numbers of UK citizens – mainly with brown or black skin.”
For Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, “‘human beings will continue to drown in the Channel while the government pursues a dangerous and reckless refugee policy that prioritises tough borders and punishment instead of protection. This is totally avoidable. We urgently need more routes for people to claim asylum in the UK and effective and compassionate solutions that are designed to keep people safe, not keep people out.’”
On 14 January, a Sudanese man “died in sub-zero conditions while trying to cross the English Channel.”
French president Emmanuel Macron stated that “there needs to be legal, stable routes to be able to migrate to the UK and this is a situation that we’re confronted with. This is a dialogue that we need to pursue with the UK.”
“Implementation of the bill in its current form will disproportionately impact members of our LGBTQI community,” reports Keah Lily: “Rainbow Migration, Stonewall and Mermaids Migration have partnered to fight for LGBTQI refugees in the Nationality And Borders Bill, which has the potential to make it even harder for LGBTQI people who are seeking asylum to be recognised and protected.”
For the MP Bambos Charalambous: “This Bill is a sham. It does nothing to create safe routes for resettlement, nothing to garner international support for breaking people-smuggling gangs, and nothing to support victims of modern-day slavery. Instead, the Nationality and Borders Bill creates unworkable policies, lets down victims who have been trafficked, and breaks our international obligations.”
To Patrick Grady MP: “This Bill is literally inhumane: it dehumanises asylum seekers, puts lives at risk and turns people into criminals for simply attempting to exercise their basic human rights. (…)
“How can the UK ever be the first safe country of arrival? We are surrounded by water. It is simply not possible. That approach would mean that practically everyone turning up here to claim asylum – whether on a ship or small boat or at an airport – would become a criminal.”
The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas called the Bill vile, inhumane and draconian. Labour’s former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said the Bill will cause immense human suffering to some of the most vulnerable people in society and called its passing ‘shameful.’ The Scottish National Party’s (SNP’s) Alison Thewliss said the Bill is an appalling, vindictive and dangerous piece of legislation. The Liberal Democrats” referred to it as the “Anti-Refugee Bill.”
St Augustine’s Centre, a charity supporting people fleeing war and persecution, states that the Bill “shuts down legal routes and neglects our obligations to provide safety to those fleeing war and persecution.”
Many people from the Republic of Ireland also stand to be targeted: The Bill “will oblige non-Irish EU citizens living in the Republic to apply for pre-travel clearance from the UK in order to cross the Border.”
For Zoe Williams, “the racism of the (…) Bill is not a Tory accident. It creates the conditions for their future successes and cover for their vast, unfolding errors.”
According to a joint legal opinion by Raza Husain QC, Eleanor Mitchell of Matrix Chambers and Jason Pobjoy of Blackstone Chambers, Clause 9 “as presently framed, confers upon the Secretary of State an exorbitant, ill-defined and unconstitutional power to a make a deprivation order without notice. (…) There is a very significant likelihood that decisions taken in reliance on the Secretary of State’s new powers would result in serious breaches of Article 8.” As well as “Article 6 and (…) potentially Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
The Good Law Project, who published the legal opinion, has concluded that “the provisions will affect the citizenship of almost half of all Asian British people and two in five Black Britons. Media Diversified told us: ‘Up to six million people will live in fear that one wrong move, even just one unforced error or car accident could see us arrested, judged in secret and deported. This targeted, racist legislation is an existential threat to all our loved ones, neighbours, and colleagues.’”
Stuart McDonald MP: The whole Bill ‘needs to be canned’
Stuart McDonald MP also noted with alarm that “the provisions in (…) the Bill risk (…) 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?
“Clause 11 means that, having faced the criminal justice system, our Afghan and his colleagues will be stuck in one of the Government’s asylum warehouses. We say that we should not go down that path – a path that (…) brought shocking results at Napier Barracks. (…)
“Clause 15 means that, stuck in that warehouse, the Syrian” – be they Kurdish or of another ethnicity – “and his colleagues will have to wait for months on end before their asylum cases are looked at, because their claims will be deemed inadmissible under a ludicrously broad range of criteria that will allow the Home Secretary to say that another country should take responsibility – even if there is not the remotest chance of that actually happening, there is no real reason why it should happen or there are strong reasons, such as family ties, why the claim should actually be considered here.
“The Home Secretary could even insist that a human rights-abusing country that pays no more than lip service to the Refugee Convention should take charge. (…) Crucial safeguards must exist, and they are absolutely nowhere in this Bill.”
He added: “Let us say that the persecuted Christian convert is refused because the judge is only 49%” certain “that he will be murdered on removal. Of those who challenge refusals, around 40% have been successful on appeal in recent years, but in this Bill appeal rights are restricted yet again, and certain appeal processes are accelerated. (…)
“Even if our persecuted Christian, after appeal, joins the others in being recognised as a refugee, the misery this Bill will inflict on them is far from complete. The group will now face all the discriminatory measures heaped on by clause 11, which empowers the Home Secretary to punish recognised refugees through the insecurity of temporary residence, through no recourse to public funds, through limited family reunion and any other form of discrimination or punishment she thinks fit. It is a truly astonishing and outrageous provision. (…)
“If our Afghan or any of the others happens to be a young person whose age is challenged, the Bill risks making life especially difficult for them. (…) Clauses will ramp up the use of age assessments, (…) requiring them even when there is no reason to doubt a child’s age.”
McDonald pointed out that “they will allow the Home Office to meddle in an area that should be a matter for child protection and safeguarding teams, and to introduce new, unsupported, inaccurate and unethical scientific methods of assessment. (…) The truth is that the whole” Bill “needs to be canned. (…)
“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.”
It has also been reported that “people who cross the Channel in small boats to claim asylum could be tagged on arrival under Home Office plans.”
Opposition to the Bill voiced in the House of Lords
On 5 January, members of the House of Lords criticised several aspects of the Bill during its second reading. Lord Dholakia expressed his concern that “we are now working to deprive people of their British citizenship, thus creating a community of refugees with nowhere to go. We are paying scant regard to the 1951 Convention on refugees and we are involved in not giving due regard to the rights of children.”
The Lord Bishop of Durham stated that “sadly, on many counts I fear that” the Bill “does not work. (…) I fear that the Bill fails the Home Office’s own values; it certainly fails to uphold the UN Convention on Refugees and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. (…) Children are rarely talked about in the Bill. (…) Refugee family reunion is a vital safe route, enabling mainly women and children to reunite with their husbands and fathers, which is so important for families being together and for integration. However, in this Bill family reunion will be, in effect, non-existent (…) Despite safe routes being central to the premise of the Bill, we see no detail of them.”
For Lord German: “This Bill creates two classes of refugees, which the UNHCR believes has no basis in international law and is out with the Refugee Convention. It says that the Convention has nothing within it which defines a refugee by reason of their route of travel or choice of country for asylum, or the timing of any claim. Furthermore, it claims that the Bill undermines the obligations under international law which the UK has made under Articles 23, 32 and 34 of the [UN] Refugee Convention – and to that we must add a large number of other clauses, including Clause 31.”
For Baroness Jones: “We are talking about refugees (…) and people seeking asylum from oppressive governments – human beings who have been enslaved by callous criminals. At a time when the world feels more dangerous than ever, and while the UK continues to fuel global conflict by acting as one of the world’s largest arms dealers.”
The Bill, she asserted, “offers no solutions for genuine safe passage. It shuts the door on people and criminalises their desperation. It is knee-jerk legislation which appeals to the basest instincts of the Tory vote. It is appeasement to right-wing extremists. (…)
“There is the undermining of access to justice, fiddling with legal process, and curtailing rights to appeal, all of which significantly increase the risks of deporting people with valid claims, putting them at risk of further enslavement, torture or death. It is unclear how, under Clause 39, asylum seekers are supposed to enter the UK legally and without committing a criminal offence. (…) Injustices will go unresolved, genuine claims for asylum will be denied, and a great many people will be condemned to misery and suffering. (…) This Bill is a stain on British values.”
For the Lord Bishop of London, in the Bill, “there is much that might exacerbate modern slavery, not reduce it.” The UNHCR “warns” that a consequence of the Bill “will be that more women and children are likely to attempt dangerous journeys,” Baroness Lister noted.
She added: “The ministerial mantra that women and children are being elbowed aside by young men is used to suggest that the former will benefit from this legislation. How is it, then, that Women for Refugee Women and more than 50 other organisations have written to the Home Secretary to warn that more women will be wrongly refused asylum, retraumatised and placed at risk of violence and abuse?”
Baroness Coussins also noted that “women and girls” who “may have good reasons for not claiming asylum via a regular route” – i.e., “they are less likely to enjoy the socioeconomic conditions or political or civil support in their country of origin which could enable them to organise to leave via a regular route” – “are more likely to face a penalty for claiming asylum under the arrangements set out in Clause 11.
“A safe third country where, under the new rules a refugee woman would be expected to remain and claim asylum, may well not be thought safe by her,” she pointed out, “especially if she is under the control of a trafficker and still vulnerable to further sexual violence or exploitation.”
Baroness Coussins additionally expressed her concern “that Clause 25 instructs the authorities deciding an asylum claim or appeal to give minimal weight to evidence provided late by the claimant, unless there is good reason. Existing Home Office guidance recognises that there are many reasons why women fleeing sexual or gender-based violence will not share relevant evidence at an early stage. This may be because of trauma, guilt or shame, or fear of family members or traffickers.
“There may also be issues connected with language and interpreting; if a woman in such a situation is provided with a male interpreter or an interpreter who has not had specific training in the sensitivities and vocabulary of sexual violence, the asylum-seeking woman is unlikely to be able or willing to describe what she has suffered.” Moreover, “holding women in isolated centres where they cannot access community support would be especially damaging for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence,” she observed.
The Bill, taken alongside Clause 2 of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, Lord Ponsonby noted, will “weaken the UK’s compliance with international asylum laws and reduce natural justice and procedural fairness for those who need it most and at the time they need it most.”
Baroness Uddin: ‘We cannot punish the victims we have created’
Baroness Uddin, in a speech in parliament on 5 January, drew attention to key issues and concerns that I shall be exploring in greater depth in a forthcoming article – namely, that the UK has, through its foreign policy interventions, wars, ‘security agreements’ and promotion of an unethical arms trade with a large number of repressive regimes and governments (including Turkey and Saudi Arabia), contributed substantively to situations, conflicts and political environments that have generated refugee movements.
Many asylum seekers attempting to cross the Channel or enter the UK by other means today, as in the past, have been directly and/or indirectly negatively impacted by those foreign policy, ‘security arrangements’ and arms trading interventions.
Whilst they have been risking their lives to seek asylum in the UK, as Lord Taverne has noted, the Home Secretary, “in effect” has “accuse[d] those who seek asylum of doing so under false pretences – in fact, fraud – yet the official figures show that most asylum claims are accepted either at first instance or on appeal. (…) Others seeking refuge will now,” if the Bill is passed, “become criminals: under Clause 39, someone who knowingly enters the UK without the necessary entry clearance will face a possible four-year prison sentence.
“Who are these supposed fraudsters and criminals? They are people fleeing torture and persecution who have made desperate, traumatic journeys to come to the United Kingdom, many to join relatives. In fact, this is no longer open to them as a legal route. Some are unaccompanied children. To describe these people as ‘fraudsters’ and make some of them criminals is unbelievable – indeed, it is unspeakable.”
“Over generations,” as Baroness Uddin has pointed out, we must acknowledge that the UK government has not been an innocent bystander with regard to creating conflict and generating (directly and/or indirectly) global refugee movements: “The UK has contributed to destabilising many nations, most recently Afghanistan, and the same can be said for Iraq and countless African countries. What result did we expect when the UK and its allies dropped an average of 46 bombs a day?
“We cannot punish the victims we have created. I sit in this Chamber every day, hopeful that it is possible that we can change the way in which we discharge our duties. Doing nothing is an abrogation of our duties. Our moral standing leaves nothing for others to emulate except tyranny, and we cannot be a bystander to such degradation of human decency. (…)
“A joint statement by faith and civil society groups calls the Bill ‘sinister’ and ‘un-British.’ (…) The Bill is deemed pernicious in its intent, with troubling aspects (…) [including] appallingly, border officials being authorised to push back families to their inevitable consequential deaths. (…)
“The effect of deterrence” of this kind “by any means necessary,” she emphasised, “will allow rescue workers to ‘push back’ families” – deemed to be ‘fraudsters’ by the Home Secretary – “to their deaths. Watching children, women and men die in our waters and calling it a Nationality and Borders Bill is an affront to the rule of law and humanity, which we constantly claim in abundance in this Chamber.
“Under the Bill,” she noted, “border security staff are being asked to breach our commitments to the Refugee Convention and, critically, duty of care law. Are we seriously asking our officials to watch as people die, which may be considered manslaughter by gross negligence in our English courtrooms?”
Baroness Bennett also added: “This Bill is clearly actively designed to take refugees who are already in situations far from ideal security and rip not just the rug but the entire ground from under them. They are refugees whose circumstances, as the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, pointed out, we have often played a major part in creating.”
Baroness Jolly also noted in a parliamentary debate in August last year: “The Dover Strait is not the place to conduct an exercise in ‘comfort persuasion,’ when refugees have already demonstrated their determination to escape brutal regimes by clinging to the undercarriages of aircraft about to get airborne or walking across a continent – or two – to get to Calais.
“Working with our allies, we need to create a safe conduit so that refugees are welcome and their asylum applications rapidly assessed, and they are then supported properly into our communities. (…) It is the price to be paid for [our] political and military failure[s].”
As Baroness Jones also noted, we must acknowledge that “the UK Government and the arms industry are culpable for genocides and other atrocities committed across the world. There are very few such atrocities that are committed independently of the global arms trade, of which the government of the UK are a major component. (…)
“Any high-flown promises about justice for genocide are empty while those same people who made the promises support the arms industry. It is time to rein in the military industrial complex and stop facilitating the killing of people across the world” – and the generation of global refugee movements even as the UK closes its doors to refugees and increases its ‘military cooperation’ with repressive regimes, I might add. “That really would benefit the reputation of the UK Government,” Baroness Jones noted.
The UK government continues to bolster repressive regimes that force people to flee for their lives. On 8 March 2021, for example, Phil Miller notes that “Boris Johnson spoke to [President] Erdoğan by telephone and agreed to increase military cooperation between the two countries,” even as the Turkish military was responsible for creating refugees movements in Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria.
“Erdoğan’s government has put more journalists behind bars than any other country in the world. Many of them come from Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Elif Sarican from the Kurdish Peoples’ Assembly, a grassroots group based in the UK, told Declassified that repression in Turkey should ‘outrage anyone who believes in even the most basic level of democracy.’”
The Turkish state has also been accused by several groups of having used chemical weapons against armed forces and civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria, again creating refugee movements in the process. And even as Kurds and targeted ‘Others’ flee from persecution and repression in Turkey itself, the UK government continues to promote an arms trade and military partnerships with Turkey.
As Margaret Owen, Director of Widows for Peace through Democracy and a patron of Peace in Kurdistan has noted, Turkey remains “one of the UK’s greatest allies. Extraordinary, with all the evidence of what Turkey has been doing both in southeast Turkey/northern Kurdistan, in Southern [Iraqi] Kurdistan (…) and in Syria, in violation of international law. Turkey is not even on the list of ‘countries of concern’ that the Foreign Office keeps. As for the arms trade, ever since Brexit, this government is keen to go anywhere to find countries that we can sign trade deals with and sell arms to.
“It is unbelievable that we should be supporting” a government “which is so overtly misogynist, which is cracking down in Turkey on women’s NGOs, which is imprisoning women lawyers, women journalists, women’s rights organisations” – and creating refugees – “and we are silent even when it is going into northern Iraq.
“It is extraordinary that we continue to support a country like Turkey which is conducting such massive war crimes and crimes against humanity on such a massive scale not just in Turkey but in Syria and in Cyprus and in northern Iraq, also in Libya.”
The UK is also set to take on a much more aggressive role in the future on a global level even as its lack of accountability – witness the nature of its recent interventions in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria – raises further concerns over the following: “The UK’s new military strategy follows the government’s announcement of the biggest increase in military expenditure since the Cold War, giving the UK the fourth largest budget in the world, outspending the Kremlin.
“Far from making the UK military less powerful, the declared new strategy and increased funds contain plans with potentially major impacts on other countries,” quite likely with regard to generating further impacts on refugee movements.
“The UK armed forces will be ‘more active around the world to combat threats of the future,’” the strategy document “states. (…) Also remarkable,” notes Mark Curtis, “was UK defence secretary Ben Wallace’s [statement that] (…) the British military ‘will (…) become [a] more present and active force around the world’” where it will be “moving seamlessly from operating to warfighting.”
Desmond Fernandes is a former Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at De Montfort University who specialises in studies focusing on the criminalisation of communities, the targeting of the ‘Other’ and genocide studies.