As Canada grapples with irregular migration at Roxham Road in Quebec, across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom is facing its own high-profile controversy.
The U.K. has introduced proposed legislation — the Illegal Migration Bill — to deter asylum seekers from arriving via the English Channel.
Experts warn that the so-called “Stop the Boats” bill would essentially withdraw the country from the global asylum system, part of a worrisome worldwide trend that has increasingly left migrants stranded in low-income transit countries.
The bill, tabled last week by British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, would deport people who enter the U.K. through irregular means, mainly those arriving in small boats via channel crossings from France, and bar them from making asylum claims in the country.
“People must know that if they come here illegally, it will result in their detention and swift removal,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said in a statement. “Once this happens — and they know it will happen — they will not come, and the boats will stop.”
The plan has been condemned by human rights and migrants’ advocacy groups, including former British professional footballer and current sports broadcaster Gary Lineker, who was suspended by the BBC for a post on Twitter criticizing the government’s proposed policy. He has since returned to airwaves after public backlash.
A dramatic increase of small boats and irregular migrants
The latest statistics from the U.K. Home Office showed 828 small boats and 33,029 irregular migrants were detected between January and September in 2022, doubling the number over the same period the year before. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, only 164 boats and 1,843 people were intercepted.
Under the proposed plan, which has yet to face a vote, migrants may be detained for 28 days with no bail or judicial review, and then for as long as there is a reasonable prospect of removal.
In exceptional circumstances, if someone would face risks of serious and irreversible harm when deported to a safe third country, they would not be removed until it was safe to do so. In these cases, they will have a maximum 45 days to remain in the U.K. before they exhaust all appeals. Deportees are also banned from re-entry.
(The bill would, however, allow unaccompanied minors who come to the U.K. illegally not to be removed to a safe third country until adulthood.)
“This really is a radical and restrictive departure from our obligations under the (United Nations) Refugee Convention, absenting ourselves from the global asylum system,” said Peter William Walsh, senior researcher with the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
“Signatories to the Refugee Convention have a duty to hear the asylum claims of individuals on their soil, regardless of how they entered … The context for this is that there is no safe and legal route to come to the U.K. with the specific purpose of claiming asylum. There is no humanitarian visa. To claim asylum, you do have to be on U.K. soil.”
Safe Third Country Agreement
Canada is also dealing with irregular migration between official land ports of entry from the United States. Last year, the RCMP intercepted 39,540 irregular border crossers. In January alone, already some 5,000 entered Canada in the same manner.
Migrants have to cross unguarded border crossings such as Roxham Road, a rural route in Quebec, because neither they can’t seek refuge at an official port of entry under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement or obtain a visa to enter the country legally.
Under the bilateral treaty, Canada and the U.S. each recognize the other country as a safe place to seek refuge. It dictates that migrants should pursue their claims in the country where they first arrived.
But the rule does not apply to the woods, dirt roads and waterways between official crossings because it’s not enforceable along a 8,890-kilometre porous land border.
There’s a difference between what’s proposed in the U.K. and the Canada-U.S. policy, though both have the effect of deterring refugees from coming in an irregular manner, said Queen’s University immigration and refugee law professor Sharry Aiken.
“We actually have an agreement in place with the U.S. As flawed as it is, that agreement is an attempt to ensure bilateral collaboration and co-operation in the processing of asylum claims,” she said.
“In the U.K., they’re effectively attempting to impose this fix unilaterally without regard to what happens to the asylum seekers.
“No guarantee that the migrants will actually have access to a refugee determination procedure and find protection in France. They’ll end up in transit countries and they’ll end up preponderantly in the Global South.”
A global crisis
The recent surge in irregular migration is a reflection of the rising number of people displaced globally. It reached 100 million last year due to both man-made crises, such as wars, and natural disasters in relation to climate change, said Aiken.
“The solutions for refugees require global co-ordination and collaboration, not shutting and sealing doors. Those so-called fixes are really like fingers in a deck. When there is pressure to migrate, migration will happen any way,” she said.
Article 31 of the Refugee Convention, to which the U.K. is one of the original signatories, states that the mode of arrival is not to be used as a means to penalize asylum seekers and the new bill is a flagrant violation of that, Aiken noted.
While British officials have yet to reveal the details of the implementation, experts say there’s a big question mark how the changes will be enforced as it would require readmission agreements with other countries.
The U.K. detention facilities currently have a capacity to hold 2,500 people and a similar policy for expedited removals, implemented two years ago, had only seen 21 out of 20,000 removable migrants deported as of last September, said Walsh.
“This gives you some idea of the magnitude of the challenge to remove tens of thousands of people,” he told the Star, adding that he has seen very little evidence that such a deterrence policy works.
Stopping the people smugglers
Although Sunak, the British prime minister, insisted the plan would break the business model of the people smugglers, Camille Le Coz, senior policy analyst with Migration Policy Institute Europe, said these measures would only push migrants to take more dangerous routes.
“This is really misreading the motivation of people who are trying to make it to the U.K. because many of them have family ties to the U.K. and so they probably are still going to try to cross,” said Le Coz, who is based in the Paris office of the non-partisan Washington think tank.
“One of the consequences of this is that it makes the route even more dangerous and putting people even more at risk. It may indeed deter some people. … But it’s also likely going to further the smuggling, the trafficking network and make it even more dangerous for people to try to cross.”
The UN Refugee Agency has warned the U.K. about the adoption of the bill, saying that it would, in effect, deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward a case.
However, in the explanatory notes to the bill, the government pleaded with parliamentarians to proceed with the proposal despite provisions that are not compatible to the UN Refugee Convention rights.
“They’re really putting their political capital on saying we’re stopping this crisis. It’s been a little bit like what Rishi Sunak was saying about ‘We’ve tried everything and we need to be tough,’” she said.
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