With immigration continuing to be a hot topic, provoking highly emotional responses from various quarters, Grassroots for Europe Round Table kicked off their 2023 regular meetings by looking at the current state of the UK’s immigration policy and the negative impact on people caught up in both the UK and European asylum system.
The meeting was chaired by former Lib Dem MEP Irina von Wiese, a human rights lawyer, and heard from expert speakers Jonathan Featonby, chief policy analyst at the UK Refugee Council, and Zoe Gardner, policy and research manager at the European Network on Statelessness. Gardner is also on the national committee of sister organisation Another Europe Is Possible.
Current UK immigration policy: point scoring by a government in crisis
The chair set the context for a timely discussion following a year of turmoil. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has resulted in mass displacement, and the continuing Tory obsession with ‘small boats’, has ramped up the ‘hostile environment’ rather than addressing the root causes and pursuing sustainable and humane solutions.
Gardner kicked off with an overview of the UK-EU relationship regarding the management of refugee flows. She suggested we’re seeing a government in crisis that’s trying to shift the national conversation back towards refugees and migration at every opportunity in order to score points amongst its core voters. However, whilst Brexit and our changing relationship with Europe has certainly impacted this crisis, it didn’t create the situation in northern France whereby destitute homeless people hoping to cross to the UK have been gathering for years.
An approach that encourages people-smuggling
In order to understand the situation, we need to revisit agreements brokered several years ago, most notably the Le Touquet and Sandhurst agreements, which created the migration controls we still use today whereby UK border officials operate on French soil.
This effectively creates a ‘buffer zone’, where the checks that would have previously happened upon entry to the UK take place in France. This has encouraged people-smuggling and trafficking gangs and led to desperate people opting for irregular migration via dangerous journeys. Although the small boat crisis is the most visible and dramatic iteration of this trend, crossing in the back of lorries and hiding in trains is also extremely dangerous and potentially deadly.
Human rights organisations on both sides of the Channel firmly oppose the existence of these juxtaposed controls which have created the desperate situation in northern France, far more so than Brexit or anything else.
Government now accepts we need to work with the whole EU
Gardner suggested we should pay close attention to the eventual deal the UK Government will negotiate with the EU to manage the situation. Consecutive home secretaries have announced initiatives to try and tackle the issue (e.g. funding the French police, fences on the beaches, naval patrols and so on) but none of them solve the issue. However, it’s important to keep an eye on what might emerge to replace the Dublin Regulation. This law is part of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and determines member state responsibility for assessing claims made on EU territory, with an emphasis on the ‘first country’ of entry. Other criteria taken into account include humanitarian grounds and family reunification. Brexit means we are no longer part of the CEAS, hence, the UK Government has been coming up with ideas such as the equally unworkable Rwanda deal.
Despite Boris Johnson having insisted that we would have a bespoke bilateral deal with France regarding asylum, the UK has now contributed to a joint statement with the Netherlands, France and Germany, regarding a commitment to achieving an agreement on the issue. This demonstrates the government’s admission that we need to deal with the whole of the EU and signals a change in the relationship.
A global rejection of Refugee Convention principles
Gardner went on to describe ongoing negotiations regarding the EU pact on migration and asylum, a legislative package that will be agreed by the three institutions (European Parliament, the Commission and the Council) for sign off by the end of the current parliamentary session. This new legislative framework may well include indefinite detention at borders, biometric identification tests for children, and other worrying policies such as limiting the right to appeal.
It appears that EU solidarity is now being invoked in the name of enacting returns on each other’s behalf rather than on welcoming refugees. Neither should we forget the EU-Libya co-operation agreement which has resulted in appalling human rights abuses of migrants and refugees intercepted at sea and subsequently housed in detention camps.
We are living through a global rejection of the principles that underpin the Refugee Convention which has protected those seeking sanctuary for more than 70 years. The UK has shamefully enacted legislation that flies in the face of the Convention and the EU asylum pact will do the same. In the US and elsewhere, similar developments are underway.
Immigration: integral to society and now viewed more positively
Gardner urged us to look at the wider issues of migration in order to mobilise and take action. The loss of freedom of movement with its associated rights has seen more short-term visas and poorer conditions, especially for seasonal and domestic workers. This undermines our ability to organise the workforce and demand decent conditions for all including migrants and those in precarious work. We should stop thinking about immigration as a separate issue and start seeing it as part of complex human systems, linked for example to farming and food security, to affordable social care for our ageing population, and so on.
She concluded by emphasising that despite government rhetoric we do have the goodwill of the majority of the population on our side. Generally speaking, migration is viewed more positively now than it was a decade ago with the contribution that migrants can make to our economy being recognised through Refugee Week, for example.
Nationality and Borders Act: criminalising asylum seekers
John Featonby’s subsequent presentation drew attention to the Nationality and Borders Act, which severely limits the ability of people to seek protection in the UK, and criminalises those who arrive irregularly, thereby flying in the face of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
It also creates a two-tier system for those granted refugee status who have gone through the UK asylum process, limiting access to family reunion, offering no recourse to public funds, and giving only two and a half years’ leave (rather than five years) plus a ten-year wait for permanent settlement.
All this will create more work for the Home Office and also undermine integration. The bill introduced age assessments for unaccompanied children through the use of medical processes (e.g. X-rays). This not only poses health risks but also relies on questionable science and is deemed by many as unethical and an infringement of children’s rights.
An asylum system not fit for purpose
It is clear that our asylum system is not fit for purpose, with in excess of 160,000 people waiting for an initial decision on their claim. The UK lags behind other European countries in this respect with a huge backlog of cases; approximately 30% of asylum seekers are waiting for at least a year before their claim is decided, during which time they are reliant on the Home Office for accommodation and financial support. This is one of the reasons why there are tens of thousands of people living in hotels. Ongoing legal challenges to the Rwanda policy further highlights the inadequacy of the Home Office.
Just before Christmas, Rishi Sunak made a statement in the House of Commons about his approach to Channel crossings (which he later reinforced with a five-point plan), whereby someone arriving by a small boat or other irregular means will be detained and then removed immediately. However, this ignores the fact that it is impossible to remove somebody back to France (or elsewhere) without that other country’s agreement. One positive note, however, is Sunak’s commitment to clear the backlog of ‘legacy cases’ that predate the nationality and borders bill although he gave no indication how this would be achieved.
Visa-free welcome for Ukraine refugees – but not in the UK
Featonby went on to contrast the UK’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis with the rest of the EU where people are able to travel without a visa under the Temporary Protection Directive.
The UK introduced two visa schemes (the Family Scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme), both of which have been problematic with a slow start due to complex bureaucracy, lack of translation, insufficient staff and poor communication. However, the UK Government has now issued over 200,000 visas to Ukrainians who have been displaced by the Russian invasion. Most of those people are still being accommodated by members of the British public, which demonstrates a willingness to show compassion. We must build on this to ensure that people displaced from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria or wherever else also receive a welcome.
The most important issue for the Refugee Council, however, remains a lack of ‘safe routes’ which must be addressed. In addition, the concept of humanitarian visas should be explored as well as a focus on trying to change the narrative and pushing for a more positive approach to the global refugee response.
Positive migration policies bring benefits
A look at other countries suggested that some South American governments have progressive policies, along with Spain and Portugal, e.g. relatively shorter routes to permanent status, permissive family reunification policies for all types of migrants, and reasonable regularisation routes for stateless people.
Portugal is an interesting case, as it recognises the impact of its colonial past, hence, people from former colonies have a more direct route to entry, citizenship and equal status. But the aim everywhere should be to ensure equal rights for all migrants with equal access to the welfare state and to employment without discrimination. Positive migration policies would prevent many of the problems we see today such as the demonisation of refugees. Featonby pointed to Sweden as previously offering positive examples, although the recent election of a right-wing anti-migrant government will likely result in a hardline approach.
Taking action to change the narrative
The discussion turned briefly to Labour and how to build political opposition through constructive dialogue. Realistically the next Labour government will inherit a dysfunctional asylum system, therefore, supporting initiatives such as quick wins as part of a new administration’s first 100 days will be important for the Refugee Council and other organisations. For example, tackling the backlog of cases should be a priority.
Speakers agreed that the right-wing press have exacerbated the problem, focusing on the Kent coast and small boats whilst ignoring the fact that France is also a sovereign country and part of the EU which has a set of rules we have abandoned, even if those rules are set to harden regarding migrants’ rights. So how should pro EU organisations and independent media respond?
Gardner advocated focusing on human rights and the need to make links with other European civil society organisations in order to shape a positive narrative. Featonby emphasised the importance of evidence-based parliamentary work in order to promote the importance of a global response and the need to broaden our discussion to include civil societies in places like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon where millions of refugees are hosted.
A shared responsibility
The idea that everyone wants to come to the UK is a false narrative. “Migration flows are not linear”, said Gardner. “Generally speaking, people are not aiming just for one place… Most people who make these kinds of irregular journeys spend weeks, months, even sometimes years in the process, stopping in various different countries, sometimes to work irregularly, sometimes being detained, sometimes being pushed back between different countries, and around again, before they ever make it even to Europe, let alone then onwards to the UK. And at each stage, most people stop… we are really the westernmost edge of this, and we get the last little trickle through.”
The most important principle of refugee protection requires that every country agrees to share the responsibility, and a closer relationship between the UK and EU would certainly help, particularly as the UK civil society is so well developed, having battled the ‘hostile environment’ for over a decade. Finally, we must remember to put the voices of people with lived experience at the heart of our work.
Julie Ward, Former Labour MEP and National Committee member of Another Europe Is Possible.
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