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Asylum seekers and the UK’s hostile environment

This year so far, the number of asylum seekers travelling across the Channel to the UK by boat, has reached just over 4,000. In June alone, the number of those travelling from France to the UK, stood at 2,000. That’s four times the number recorded for the whole of 2018.

Many of those seeking refuge in the UK derive from Afghanistan, and Iraq, both countries invaded and destabilised by the UK back in 2001, and 2003 respectively. Others come from Yemen, which is currently suffering the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, as well as Iran, Pakistan, Kuwait and Palestine.

A group of individuals seeking refuge in the UK, were set to be removed on Wednesday 12 August. However, at least 17 of these individuals have contested the government’s deportation orders, and lodged pre-action protocols earlier this week.

Responding to the influx of asylum seekers travelling to the UK by boat, Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson, condemned their actions as criminal. Meanwhile, on Friday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) deployed an A400M Atlas plane to conduct surveillance of the area.

Now, the Prime Minister has announced plans to look at the “legal framework” that relates to the handling of asylum seekers when they arrive in the UK. He has subsequently been accused of trying to scapegoat asylum seekers, and using inflammatory and divisive language.

Increasingly hostile environment

Since the early 1990’s UK asylum policy has significantly eroded the rights and legal protections of asylum seekers. These policies have resulted in devastating cuts, and effectively worked towards villainising and ostracising those at risk and seeking refuge.

Prior to 1993, the UK had no specific asylum legislation, however the introduction of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, changed everything. Created with the intention of scaling back the number of asylum seekers coming into the UK, the legislation implemented significant restrictions on the services and benefits that asylum seekers could access.

Further restrictions were brought in later under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996. This piece of legislation lowered the cap on income support available to asylum seekers. Consequently, the benefit entitlement shrunk from 90% of what British citizens received, to 70%.

Further chipping away at the resources offered to asylum seekers, under Tony Blair, the Labour government introduced additional cuts. These cuts excluded asylum seekers from accessing the social security benefits available to the rest of the UK. Brought in under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, these changes massively impacted the way asylum seekers were treated.

Specifically, Section 95 of the Act placed significant limitations on the way financial support was delivered to those seeking asylum. For those whose application was awaiting a decision, instead of being paid in cash, the government instead supplied them with vouchers. However, these vouchers were only usable in some outlets. Meanwhile, the legislation also led to asylum seekers being housed in deprived areas, isolating them and preventing them from integrating into the community.

Fortunately, after significant backlash, the voucher scheme was scrapped in 2001, after being labelled, “degrading, discriminatory and impractical“. That being said, this move did not improve financial aid for asylum seekers, who are now offered only £37.75 a week to live on.

Much later in 2012, former PM Theresa May outlined her plans for the new “hostile environment” policy. This policy sought to discourage people from coming to the UK and seeking asylum, and for those who were settled, tried to prevent them from overstaying. The policy also sought to significantly reduce the resources available to “irregular migrants”.

Subsequently, the Immigration Act 2014, and the Immigration Act 2016, introduced harsher restrictions in relation to housing, benefits, education, healthcare, marriage, banking, driving and work.

This hostile environment has only been strengthened in recent years, with the Windrush scandal being a testament to this. And, despite Home Secretary Priti Patel promising a “genuine cultural shift,” and a more “compassionate” approach, the government is still deciding to take a hard-line approach.

Additionally, while the “hostile environment” policy has been renamed the “compliant environment,” it appears that the UK’s policy approach to asylum seekers and immigrants has changed only in name.

Legal action launched

According to The Guardian, a group of asylum seekers who were being forced out of the UK by a Home Office operation, recently launched a legal challenge against their removal.

At least 17 of the asylum seekers who were set to be removed on a charter flight on Wednesday, had been preparing their case and pre-action protocols were lodged on Monday 10 August.

The group who were challenging the government’s deportation orders, originate from a number of different countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait and Yemen. Many of them had been subjected to torture, and were traumatised by the conflicts in their respective countries.

Speaking to The Guardian, Toufique Hossain of Duncan Lewis solicitors, who is working on behalf of the asylum seekers, said: “All the clients we represent have strong claims for international protection. They are, by definition, refugees. They also have very strong reasons as to why their claims ought to be processed in the UK. Rather than vilifying refugees who enter the UK, plotting potentially unlawful ways in which to push them back, [the home secretary] Priti Patel ought to spend time developing safe and durable routes for refugees to claim asylum”.

Reflecting on the hard-line approach adopted by the UK, Celia Clarke, Director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said: “We fear that this cavalier move is part of a strategy to rush through as many removals as possible under Dublin regulations which will cease to be part of UK law after the Brexit date. This is incredibly risky and flies in the face of last week’s health advice from government which was that we had probably ‘reached the limit’ of opening up society”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We want to see migrants who have illegally and dangerously crossed the Channel returned to mainland Europe. While we are unable to comment on ongoing legal proceedings, it is the case that the current legal framework is often abused by activist lawyers to frustrate the government’s attempts in this regard”.

Now, according to a report by The Guardian, the majority of the asylum seekers with deportation orders, have had their flight tickets deferred. Three of the cases, which saw emergency out-of-hours high court action, were also granted orders staying their removal.

However, others seeking asylum were not so lucky. Although, the number of those on board the charter flight out of the UK has not yet been confirmed.

Extreme measures

In an unprecedented move, on Friday 7 August, the Home Office requested military assistance to deal with the influx of asylum seekers travelling by sea. In response an RAF A400M Atlas plane was deployed by the MoD, which flew as low as 1,500 feet alongside the English side of the Channel. In addition to performing surveillance, this move appeared to be an attempt to assert control and intimidate. However, the MoD has reportedly denied such claims.

Commenting on the decision to get the RAF involved, Andy Netherwood, a defence commentator and former RAF pilot, said: “It’s a very expensive way of doing what should be a Border Force coastal surveillance operation, a contract that was cancelled to save money four years ago”.

However, this rather extreme approach to dealing with asylum seekers entering the UK, is one embraced by a number of Conservative MPs and peers, many of whom believe the government isn’t doing enough.

In a letter to the Home Secretary, a group of 25 Conservative MPs and peers, argued that those entering the country by boat, were “invading”. Subsequently, the group called for tougher measures, in order to deter more people attempting the trip. One suggestion included moving in Navy war ships.

Responding to this outlandish and unnecessary suggestion, Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP, said: “We have a legal [and] moral responsibility to refugees fleeing famine, war and violence. They are not the problem. The problem is the dangerous routes they must take. We should be looking at safe and legal routes, not intimidating them with Navy ships”.

Speaking to the BBC, Pierre-Henri Dumont, the National Assembly member for Calais, added: “What is the British navy going to do if it sees a small boat? Is it going to shoot the boat? Is it going to enter French waters? It’s a political measure to show some kind of muscle but technically speaking it won’t change anything”.

Meanwhile, addressing the migrant situation, PM Boris Johnson called the Channel crossings: “A very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do”. He also stated that in response, the government would be looking into changing the “legal framework” to make the deportation of asylum seekers easier.

Arguably, change is likely to be afoot, considering that when the transition period ends in December, the EU’s Dublin III Regulation will no longer apply to the UK. Consequently, beyond December, the government will be unconstrained and able to introduce new asylum rules.

And, it’s more than likely that the Home Office will introduce stricter measures, considering it presently perceives the system as “inflexible” and “rigid,” and open to “abuse” by “activist lawyers”.

Commenting on these potential future changes, a Home Office Spokesperson, said: “The U.K. will be able to negotiate its own bilateral returns arrangements from the end of this year”.

Speaking about the inhumanity at the heart of the government’s approach, Lisa Doyle, the Refugee Council’s Director of Advocacy, said: “Seeking asylum is not a crime, and it is legitimate that people have to cross borders to do so”.

It certainly appears that the Home Office is turning its back on promises to create a “more fair and compassionate” approach when it comes to issues around immigration. But, that’s not really a surprise.

Comparatively, what is interesting, is the very different approach taken by the government when it comes to the Hong Kong crisis. The PM has offered a route out of Hong Kong, into the UK, for up to 3 million Hongkongers. Yet, when it comes to the fate of asylum seekers fleeing war-torn and severely deprived countries, his sympathies appear to be a little bit more reserved.

On top of this, in a report nine months ago, the Home Secretary was warned that the Conservative’s policies were “pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes”. Further to this, the report called for the introduction of legal passages into the UK to prevent a crisis. Despite this, calls for change were ignored.

On Monday, in a Tweet, Home Secretary Priti Patel called the number of small boat crossings “unacceptable” and pledged: “I am absolutely committed to making this incredibly dangerous route unviable”. Many fear what this pledge will look like in action.

Article Created By Madaline Dunn

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