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New asylum laws aren’t just impractical and illegal: they are abhorrent

Oliver reacts to the UK government's new asylum laws.

There have been so many times over the past few years that I have been ashamed to be British. Tragically, this might just top them all. Quite frankly I am incredulous. It is hard to believe that this country is run by people willing to break human rights laws, willing to break the UN refugee convention, and willing to deny desperate people the chance to plead their case purely on the basis of how they have made their journey. But this shouldn’t be about breaking laws, the morals should be enough. The fact that this policy is unlikely to ever come into force almost makes it worse. It shows a government led by people willing to cast their moral duties and values aside with no obvious aim other than appeasing a select group of the electorate.

First let me lay out the facts. The new law’s first aspect means that anyone arriving in the UK by small boats or any other ‘illegal’ means will automatically have their application rejected and detained. Then, it will be the ‘duty’ (yes ‘duty’) of whoever is the Home Secretary to remove them to a third country such as Rwanda. In the future, those people will never again be eligible to apply for asylum in the UK, regardless of age, situation, or route. For the first 28 days of detention, migrants won’t even have the power to seek bail or appeal their decisions, effectively condemning them to detention regardless of how compelling their case is. Finally, there will be a new cap on refugees settled in the UK set by Parliament. Effectively at the moment this gives the Conservative government free rein to block applications regardless of global situations or individual cases on a purely arbitrary basis.

The messaging is almost as bad as the policies themselves. What does it say about our country that the Prime Minister is willing to put himself behind a podium that reads ‘STOP THE BOATS’? What does it say about our country that the last three tweets from that Prime Minister tell people in bold red lettering that they will be ‘DETAINED, DENIED, and BANNED’? On Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Suella Braverman had the cheek to say that this policy is designed around being humane. I don’t know what law she thinks she has put together and is singing the praises of but it certainly isn’t the same one I’m reading.

In terms of possible legal challenges, ‘problematic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Perhaps the one reassuring thing that Braverman has said in the past 48 hours was in her letter to MPs covering the law: here, she states that there is ‘more than a 50% chance’ that the law would be found to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In reality, the ECHR might prove to be the least of her problems. The rules she is looking to instigate clearly voilate the parameters set after WWII by the United Nations Refugee Agency in their refugee convention. The UNHCR said themselves on Tuesday that “This would be a clear breach of the refugee convention and would undermine a longstanding, humanitarian tradition of which the British people are rightly proud.” In essence, this particular breach is due to the fact that the law prevents refugees from making their case. We of course already know that Braverman is keen to leave the ECHR but to go a step further and break the UN Refugee Convention defies belief and sense.

The reality is that this, like many of this government’s policies, is pure showmanship. Clearly there is a problem with our asylum system but that problem is not refugees. Both short and long-term options do exist even if they are less flashy on a government billboard. It starts with admitting failings and tackling the backlog that just a few weeks ago topped 160 000 for the first time. In 2022, only 23,800 decisions were taken on asylum in a stalled system filled with inadequacies and costing the country £6 million per day in hotel bills. The response though needs to be wholesale reform and investment, not the emergency temporary measure of some applications being assessed abroad on forms exclusively available in English. After recent wins with the Windsor Concord, Sunak should also be looking at the only sensible long-term solution – the establishment of safe and legal routes. This approach has seen success with the establishment of offices in France with regard to Ukrainian refugees in the last year but there is no reason that this shouldn’t be expanded to prevent people from having to risk their lives in the channel. That, hand in hand with a re-establishing of the UK aid budget back to the 0.7% of GDP figure that had long been settled upon by all parties can tackle human tragedy at source and make a real long-term difference.

So, I hope and pray that this new law doesn’t come into force – early signs show that it almost certainly won’t, but that isn’t what is making me feel so disappointed in my country this morning. The kind of rhetoric from a Prime Minister who says he is ‘up for the fight’ against human rights laws and a Home Secretary that spreads the kind of dangerous rhetoric that she has in recent days is just plain wrong. This shouldn’t be about politics, this should be about moral duty.

Image: CC2:0//AndreyPopov via Getty Images/iStockphoto

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