Pulling up the Drawbridge on Fortress Britain

Government policy and practice consistently treat asylum and migration as security issues to be tackled via hard borders and military enforcement. Libby Ruffle describes how, in its Nationality and Borders Bill, the government is closing the door on those risking their lives in dangerous channel crossings in a desperate search for safety from war and repression.

In September 2015, three-year-old Alan Kurdi drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. He was one of 12 people from Syria who died trying to reach Greece. Prime Minister David Cameron promised that the UK would ‘fulfil its moral responsibilities’ to those displaced by the war in Syria.

In October 2020 Anita, nine, and Armin, six, died with their Iranian Kurdish parents when their boat sank in the Channel. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his ‘thoughts were with the victims’ loved ones’ and pledged to ‘crack down on ruthless criminal gangs’.

In June 2021, it was announced that the body of Anita and Armin’s 15-month-old brother, Artin, had been found on the coast of Norway. The previous day, Johnson spoke to France’s President Macron about “ongoing cooperation to tackle small boat crossings in the Channel and raised the need for redoubled efforts to deter migrants from attempting this perilous journey.”

The 2021 rhetoric may sound coarser than Cameron’s benevolent words, but they more honestly reflect successive governments’ hostile environment policy. Cameron’s 2015 pledge following Alan Kurdi’s death, which sparked a rise in volunteering and campaigning by the public, was carried through in the most limited way possible. When the UK closed the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) this March it had resettled 20,319 people, less than 4,000 people per year.

There are over 6 million internally displaced people in Syria. Of those 6 million Syrians who have fled their home country, Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million. Germany has given asylum to around 600,000 Syrians. Sweden, with less than one-sixth the UK’s population, has welcomed over 116,000 Syrians.

The UK has no resettlement scheme for the loved ones evoked by Johnson who were Iranian Kurds. Nor, said Ashkan Mirani from a refugee camp in Iraq, does the rest of the world “want to see us or hear our problems.”

Hard hearts and broken promises

It might have seemed that Johnson had a change of heart and policy when in August he announced “one of the most generous resettlement schemes in our country’s history” in the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) – committing to welcoming 5,000 people in the first year and up to 20,000 ”over the coming years.“ In fact, at face value it seems barely more “generous” than the Syrian resettlement programme. But at the time of writing four months later, it remains unopen, with no updates since September

And the scheme for Afghans who worked for the UK government (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy: ARAP) was mishandled such that people were “being left to die at the hands of the Taliban.” A former Foreign Office Director for Afghanistan said, “As far as I can tell there’s no cross-Whitehall coordination mechanism that brings together FCDO [the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office], the Home Office and the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to actually make sense of Arap and launch ACRS.”

The Foreign Secretary’s excuse of being taken by surprise is contradicted by the Prime Minister’s remark that “it’s been clear for many months that the situation could go very fast.” Johnson added that the Taliban had to be made to understand the need for safe passage. This contrasts with his own UK policy. With Brexit, the UK left the Dublin III agreement which covered agreements on safe return and passage of asylum-seekers.

Within the last couple of weeks, the government announced that it was narrowing the ARAP scheme, drawing accusations of broken promises.

Lives at risk

So, what of those people who are still fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Kurdistan or Sudan who missed the scheme or the evacuation from Kabul, or for whom there is no official government or UN programme? Their options have narrowed to a small boat crossing the Channel, a route on which those six nationalities are all represented. Some, tragically, are among the 194 people reported missing after attempting the crossing since 2014.

Their potential journey to seek asylum in the UK is reliant on new legislation. On 08 December, the Nationality and Borders Bill was passed by the Commons with a majority of 67 votes. It is now being considered by the House of Lords. Priti Patel says the Home Office is there to save lives but the Borders Bill appears designed to put lives at risk.

The Bill makes resettlement schemes the only way for asylum seekers to enter the country legally. It criminalises those who arrive spontaneously, risking their lives in crossing the Channel. This goes against the UK’s obligations under the United Nations Refugee Convention which prohibits any penalty for having used an irregular route.

The government is also trying to bypass international treaties on maritime law: the Safety of Lives at Sea (SOLAS) and Search and Rescue (SAR) conventions and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which it’s a signatory. The treaties require the UK to take all reasonable measures to prevent people coming to harm at sea. By introducing a policy of pushbacks, it allows dangerous boarding and detaining of boats.

Under existing laws, officers would be in danger of being prosecuted if a migrant is in danger or drowns. The Nationality and Borders Bill gives immunity from prosecution to Border Force staff who commit criminal offences while pushing back boats. The inclusion of this clause comes despite unions who represent staff pointing out the dangers involved. France is reluctant to endorse the tactic and there have been calls by charities like the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants against immunity.

As Harriet Harman MP said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, “Current failures in the immigration and asylum system cannot be remedied by harsher penalties and more dangerous enforcement action […] The Bill is littered with measures that are simply incompatible with human rights law and the UK’s obligations under international treaties.”

Citizenship-stripping

It could seem like incompetence, apart from the addition of one chilling and far-reaching clause. Under Clause 9, the bill gives the government powers to strip, without notice, ‘naturalised’ people of their citizenship. Historically, this power came with the caveat that that someone must hold another nationality or could apply for one, but this no longer applies.

This deprivation of state protection has been quietly underway since 2014 when the Home Office, circumnavigating Parliamentary debate, allowed itself powers to serve notice of citizenship withdrawal by merely putting a copy of it in someone’s file – overriding the requirement to write to someone’s last known address. This was overruled by the High Court but the government have now included the bypass in Clause 9, a clause which additionally authorises Home Office actions which were taken before the High Court ruling.

This retrospective ruling of unlawful actions, difficult to appeal outside the country in the event you’re barred from entry on returning from holiday for example, applies to anyone born overseas who has become a UK citizen and, potentially, their family. It will commonly affect people who could be eligible for citizenship of another country through birth or descent, regardless of how little time they have spent there. For example, Bangladesh’s policy that anyone born to a Bangladeshi parent is considered a citizen from birth until 2021 was part of the case to remove Shamima Begum’s British citizenship. Pakistan offers citizenship to anyone born there after 1951, which would include over 417,000 residents of England and Wales. It may affect almost six million people in England and Wales alone, with non-White residents reckoned to be eight-times more likely to be deprived of citizenship than White residents.

In solidarity and hope

Since 2014, almost 23,000 people have died or disappeared while attempting to cross the Mediterranean and claim asylum in Europe. In the UK there is hope in the RNLI’s recent reiteration that they will try and save all lives. Chief Executive Mark Dowie said that lifeboat crews were performing “vital work” carrying out “humanitarian work of the highest order.” Following his statement, donations to the RNLI jumped by more than 28-times, contradicting the Home Secretary’s claim that “the British public … are frustrated at the number of illegal migrants entering this country.”

While the UK government remains, despite its exit from the EU, ideologically committed to strengthening White Fortress Europe, the responses to the Borders Bill of reputable bodies like the UNHCR, Law Society and the British Medical Association alongside many others, suggest we may still stop dangerous legislation which could mean the death of increasing numbers of people trying to reach our shores.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: Human Rights at Sea.