When Rishi Sunak took office as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom last year, he set out a list of five priorities: halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce the national debt, cut NHS waiting lists, and stop the boats.
The last, which has taken the spotlight this past week, refers to the growing number of migrants who are crossing the English channel from France in small boats. The number of people who have arrived in the UK this way has increased exponentially in recent years – from 1,843 in 2019 to over 45,000 in 2022.
The migrant crisis has deepened throughout Europe in recent years; in 2022, Italy received more than 100,000 migrants on its shores by boat, whilst Greece prevented over 250,000 from crossing the river it shares with Turkey.
In response, countries throughout the EU are increasing their focus on policies to mitigate these numbers, mostly by introducing punitive measures to those seeking asylum.
On Tuesday, Sunak joined this growing trend and introduced a bill to parliament that includes a series of measures intended to reduce the number of channel crossings, but many are concerned that the bill contravenes international human rights treaties.
The ‘Stop the Boats’ Bill
The law, first and foremost, means that anyone who enters the UK illegally after having passed through a safe country will lose their right to claim asylum.
Anyone who enters the UK on one of these small boats after crossing the channel will be permanently barred from ever settling in or returning to the UK and will instead be removed to their home country or to another third country deemed “safe” by the UK government, for example, Rwanda.
According to Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, this measure is meant to stop gangs of human traffickers who are profiting from smuggling desperate people across the channel. Their logic is that, if people understand that they will gain nothing and be penalised for illegally entering the UK, the incentive for people to reach the UK will be removed.
The measure also hopes to expedite processing of asylum claims, by making any claim of asylum automatically inadmissible if the migrant has entered the UK in an irregular manner.
The law would also require anyone seeking asylum to submit all relevant claims at once, rather than “abusing” the system by submitting consecutive separate claims for asylum in order to deter removal. According to Sunak and Braverman, this will allow the Home Office to focus on processing asylum claims for those who have entered through legal routes.
At the end of 2022, over 160,000 asylum seekers were awaiting decisions on their claims, an increase of 60% compared to the same period in 2021.
The law also includes measures to increase the number of countries that are considered “safe” third countries, ending funding for hotel stays for refugees, and limiting the circumstances in which legal challenges will prevent someone from being removed from the UK.
Is the UK’s new policy for asylum seekers violating international law?
A “disclaimer” of sorts on the front page of the bill has generated widespread comment and concern:
“Secretary Suella Braverman has made the following statement under section 19(1)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998: I am unable to make a statement that, in my view, the provisions of the Illegal Migration Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.” (bolding added)
In a letter to MPs addressing this statement, Braverman clarified saying:
“Our approach is robust and novel, which is why I’ve made a statement under Section 19(1)(b) of the Human Rights Act 1998. This does not mean that the provisions in the Bill are incompatible with the Convention rights, only that there is a more 50% [sic] chance that they may not be.” (bolding added)
However, whilst speaking to the press, Braverman said:
“We’re not breaking the law, and no government representative has said that we’re breaking the law. In fact, we’ve made it very clear that we believe we’re in compliance with all of our international obligations, for example the refugee convention, the European Convention on Human Rights, other conventions to which we are subject.”
Sunak responded similarly to a question about whether or not he was ready for the inevitable legal challenges to this law:
“We believe that it is lawful, that we are acting in compliance with our international obligations and we are also meeting our obligations to the British public to make sure that we have control over their borders and that it is them and their elected representatives who are deciding who comes here.”
Nonetheless, the vast majority of human rights experts and lawyers who have weighed in on this situation disagree strongly with Sunak and Braverman’s belief in the bill’s compliance.
💥 AMAZING by Chris Daw KC @crimlawuk. A must-watch and must-share.
"To detain someone, without trial, without access to a lawyer, or the courts, and then deport them – it's abominable. The UK will become an international human rights pariah. There's nothing 50-50 about it." ~AA pic.twitter.com/jkaG1Tz9kg
— Best for Britain (@BestForBritain) March 8, 2023
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has expressed profound concern over the bill, saying that it violates international law, specifically the Refugee Convention, which was first agreed in 1951 and to which the UK is a signatory.
The UNHCR laid out its concerns in a statement, saying:
“The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances.” (bolding added)
The UNHCR also voiced concern about the UK government’s plans for relocation of migrants, either back to their home country or to a safe third country.
Currently, the UK has no arrangements in place with other nations that would allow them to transfer asylum seekers, except for one deal with Rwanda whose legal viability is still being debated in court.
There is grave concern that this lack of a pathway for onward movement could result in indefinite limbo and detention for asylum seekers.
When asked if he would ever consider withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, with which the law has also been accused of being non-compliant, Sunak said that he did not think that step would be necessary.
Nonetheless, it is a common refrain for Tory ministers in the UK to threaten this withdrawal and one which has been sung frequently this week in response to the these concerns.
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France & UK Sign Partnership
France joined the picture at the end of the week and agreed to a renewed partnership with the UK to address the migrant crisis.
Due to the geographic proximity, the UK’s relationship with France has always been key to management of any crises in the channel.
Sunak mentioned this reliance multiple times at the press conference on Tuesday, hinting that further measures would be agreed with France at the summit planned to take place on Friday.
Indeed, on Friday afternoon the two nations jointly announced new plans for a multiyear financial package.
These new plans include a new detention centre in France, a new dedicated permanent policing unit under France’s authority, and enhanced technology to patrol the country’s beaches, including drones and aircraft.
The UK has pledged about $581 million to help fund these plans.
According to Sunak:
“The best thing we can do is try and disrupt the gangs right at the beginning at source before people end up arriving here and that’s the kind of work that we can do more of […] but I’m very grateful for the teams in France for the support and cooperation that they have given us cause it really, it does make a difference.”
Camille Le Coz, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, expressed scepticism over the deal, calling it “more of the same,” as past bilateral agreements between the two nations over their shared border have done little to reduce the number of boats crossing the channel.
According to Le Coz:
“What the UK really wants is to be able to return people to France, and this is something that has not been agreed and won’t be agreed by France.”
How does Gary Lineker fit into Sunak’s “Stop the Boats” Bill?
In the midst of all of this, a famous former footballer and current sports commentator for the UK’s national broadcaster BBC has stirred up an intense controversy on social media over his response to these plans.
As host of the popular weekly programme Match of the Day, Gary Lineker is one of the nation’s most well-known TV personalities and the highest paid presenter at the network.
In response to Tuesday’s announcement of the Illegal Migration Bill, Lineker tweeted:
Good heavens, this is beyond awful. https://t.co/f0fTgWXBwp
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
He then responded to a now-deleted tweet criticising his opinion:
There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
At first, this comparison simply sparked backlash from members of the conservative-led government.
One MP said the comments were a “step too far” and that the BBC should sack Lineker. Another urged the broadcaster to “stand up” to the presenter and “remind him his job is to talk football, not politics.”
Suella Braverman said of this development, “I’m disappointed. I think it’s unhelpful to compare our measures, which are lawful, proportionate, and indeed compassionate, to 1930s Germany.”
'It's unhelpful to compare our measures to 1930s Germany'
On #BBCBreakfast Home Secretary Suella Braverman criticised Gary Lineker after he tweeted about the Government's asylum policyhttps://t.co/vUlRBwWLG0 pic.twitter.com/ySUULjAa7w
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) March 8, 2023
The PM himself also waded into the fray on Wednesday, with a spokesperson saying:
“It’s obviously disappointing to see someone whose salary is funded by hardworking British taxpayers using that kind of rhetoric and seemingly dismissing their legitimate concerns that they have about small boats crossings and illegal migration.”
The comment refers to the fact that the BBC, as a publicly funded institution, must observe “due impartiality.”
The broadcaster has strict guidelines regarding social media use for its employees which specify that anyone who works in news and current affairs (across all divisions), factual journalism production or senior management must not express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics or “controversial subjects.”
Many on social media have pointed out that, although maintaining neutrality on social media is an understandable requirement for the broadcaster’s journalists and political reporters, Lineker’s role at the BBC is to comment on sports, so he should be free to express his political opinion on his own social media.
On Friday evening, in a remarkable development, the BBC announced that Lineker would step back from presenting “Match of the Day” until a clear position on his use of social media could be agreed.
This announcement has generated widespread discussion and criticism on social media, with many highlighting the irony in the BBC’s choice to censure and penalise one of its employees due to pressure from one faction of the government in the name of “impartiality.”
Labour: “The BBC’s cowardly decision to take Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure. Tory politicians lobbying to get people sacked for disagreeing with Government policies should be laughed at, not pandered to. BBC should rethink.”
— Robert Peston (@Peston) March 10, 2023
The controversy also led to many of Lineker’s colleagues choosing not to appear on the BBC for their scheduled programming this weekend in solidarity.
I have informed the BBC that I won’t be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) March 10, 2023
Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the opposition party, has spoken out in Gary Lineker’s defence, whilst pointing out that the outcry over this news is inexcusably overshadowing the news to which Lineker was attempting to draw attention – namely the passage of British legislation that will contravene international human rights treaties.
“Even within the BBC’s own code, they are allowed to express opinions of a partisan nature, providing it doesn’t impinge on their area of work. His area is sport. Unfortunately the whole debate now is shifting on to Gary and the BBC and ignoring the issue of this, I think, disgraceful piece of legislation that parliament’s about to debate on Monday,” – Jeremy Corbyn
This move by the BBC coincided with another choice not to air a David Attenborough documentary that discusses climate change over fear of backlash from right-wing ministers.
The choice to censor Attenborough in this way has raised many questions among the British public about whether the BBC’s choice twice in one week to cave to pressure – real or anticipated – from right-wing members of governments reveals an adherence to “due impartiality” or, rather, the most blatant and unabashed display of corruption and cronyism by the broadcaster in recent memory.
Many are rightfully asking if the BBC would have removed Lineker from his post if he had instead chosen to tweet in support of the “Stop the Boats” Bill.
The fact that right-wing MPs can, and have, successfully co-opted outrage over a footballer’s tweet to distract from the UK’s choice to abandon long-established human rights demonstrates the shameful state of the UK’s current government.
Maybe rather than punishing those who choose to cross the channel by any dangerous means necessary, Sunak and Braverman should watch out for the treacherous territory into which they themselves are wading.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Rishi Sunak introduces his Illegal Migration or “Stop the Boats” Bill. Featured Photo Credit: Screenshot from Youtube.