By African Exponent
What this means for future refugees?
Across recent headlines, Priti Patel came under fire for her inability to solve the so-called “Channel Crisis” as a record (for this year) 828 people arrived in the month of August 2021. This was highlighted by rising tensions between the Home Secretary and her French counterpart concerning the payment of approximately £55 million to the French coastal authorities to increase border patrols and surveillance.
When these domestic and international political tensions are mixed in with the highly contentious Nationality and Borders Bill, which introduces powers such as turning away boats away from UK waters, the fate of the vulnerable making these crossings seems more uncertain than ever.
But what does this mean for the people who are risking everything in the hope of finding sanctuary in the UK? Will this law in the making create any difference and should they be expect to be turned back to France?
The Nationality and Borders Bill is the Home Office’s attempt to fix our broken asylum system. Controversially, the bill gives powers to immigration authorities to send back boats to France. There are two elements to this issue:
1. Can the UK authorities turn around boats of people in need of rescue once they enter UK waters; and
2. How would the French authorities be involved?
For the first point the answer depends on who you ask. From an international law perspective Article 98 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (LOSC) requires every signatories’ ships to assist any person found at sea in danger of being lost. In short, there is a duty of care owed to the people crossing the channel by the UK and France, and this can be dependent on whose waters the boat is currently in.
There is also a human rights element where turning back boats without individually examining each person’s case would be a breach of their human rights. This has been seen in Italy where the Italian authorities in April 2020 endorsed turning back boat loads of refugees to Libya without individually examined each person’s circumstances. Now Matteo Salvini who is the leader of Italy’s right wing League Party and former Minister of the Interior has been ordered to stand trial and could face up to 15 years in prison for refusing to let a Spanish ship carrying migrants to dock in an Italian port.
The UK government in its turn has argued that turning away boats would not be in breach of international law, or they would only act within international law when turning the boats back. However, the legal advice which the government received has not been published.
Also, it has been admitted that these measures could only be used in specific circumstances, though there has been no guidance as to what those circumstances would be. Evidently, the situation seems to be rather one-sided with an established precedent for the UK to be unable to turn back ship compared to the UK governments’ vague assurances of legality.
Secondly, the Bill includes a provision that the boats can only be turned back with the consent of the country to where the boats will be sent. This is where the war of words over coastal patrol funding with the French government is significant.
When the UK was an EU member, the UK was subject to the Dublin Regulation which allowed us to send those seeking asylum to EU member states where the person in question had first entered. Now the UK must create bilateral agreements with each country individually as mentioned in the Bill to return asylum seekers.
This agreement with the French is under extreme pressure. As numbers of people arriving on UK shores has increased, despite the UK taxpayer providing extra funding for French border forces, the Home Secretary may continue threatening to remove the funding if the situation does not improve. The French authorities have in turn accused the Home Office of blackmail where funding will only be given dependant on a numerical requirement of people arriving, which was not previously agreed.
The reality is that larger border patrols and surveillance are plugging gaps rather than addressing the root problems. As the French coasts are increased in security there have been reports of smugglers either operating further up the coast or starting more inland. This not only makes the funding seem wasteful but places extra pressure on the UK to form an agreement with their French counterpart as more people are landing contrary to government aims.
Additionally, the French authorities seems to be sceptical of the previously mentioned legal issues regarding human rights and international law. According to the Guardian the French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin has said that “France will not accept any practice that breaks maritime law”.
Hence Priti’s Paradox, the Home Secretary is expected to reduce the number of people arriving on our shores but can only do this through a mutual agreement with France. Thus far, paying for increased security on French beaches has had limited success but is also pushing people smugglers to act in more clandestine ways.
On the flip side, France is increasingly unwilling come to an agreement with the UK due to the legal and ethical concerns of turning away boats as well as due to the threat of withdrawing funding.
Ultimately, the people making the crossing are trapped in the middle. The Bill is unlikely to have Royal Assent and be enforced until Spring 2022 leaving half a year for more people to arrive. Even when enforced, it is still unclear as to what will actually change due to the dubious legal nature of the bill which is sure to be challenged in the future.
Refugees and those seeking asylum are set in limbo with an increasingly hostile environment deliberately created by the UK government.
With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, we can expect to see more Afghans seeking asylum as well as other countries such as Iran, Albania, Eritrea, Iraq and Sudan.