The UK government is proposing new laws to crack down on asylum seekers who arrive by boat. The changes would give the government stronger powers to remove asylum seekers from the country without assessing their claims. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to “take back control” of the country’s borders and reduce drownings at sea. However, critics say the laws may violate the UK’s international commitments.
The United Nations Refugee Convention protects the right of any person to seek asylum because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Parties to the Convention (including the UK and Australia) agree not to send asylum seekers back to an unsafe country, to let them remain while their claims are assessed, and to treat them humanely.
The Convention is not ‘binding’ and many countries (including Australia) restrict the capacity to seek asylum in some circumstances. In recent years, the UK has introduced restrictions on asylum seekers who arrive by boat without authorization, especially if they have travelled through other ‘safe’ countries before doing so. There were 45,000 arrivals by boat last year. Last year, the government announced a plan to transfer asylum seekers to Rwanda without assessing their claims – although no transfers have occurred yet.
The new proposed laws would give the Home Secretary (equivalent to our Home Affairs Minister) a ‘legal duty’ to remove unauthorised boat arrivals from the country without assessing their claims. This would strengthen the UK’s ability to send people back to the country they left if deemed safe, or else to a third country. Asylum seekers in this position would be detained without bail for at least 28 days and would be permanently banned from returning once removed. Human rights claims would not be assessed until after removal, and the UK’s protections for modern slavery victims would not apply.
Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the proposal would stop the “unfair” practice of people travelling “through a string of safe countries [to] abuse our asylum laws… If you come here illegally, you won’t be able to claim asylum or build a life here”. The government also says the proposal would stop “criminal gangs” who encourage migrants to make “dangerous and unnecessary journeys”.
The opposition (the Labour Party) say the plan is “unworkable” and would not stop the boats, arguing instead for tougher policing and improvements to safe pathways for seeking asylum. Refugee advocacy groups and international organisations have condemned the move. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also accused the UK of neglecting its “fundamental obligations… inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility-sharing”.
Will it pass?
It’s unclear whether the government will be successful in establishing the new laws. While it has a majority in the House of Commons (the main, elected lawmaking body), the unelected House of Lords has the power to block laws and there is some speculation it may do so. There would also likely be legal challenges in the courts. The BBC has reported the government’s own lawyers have warned the policy may violate UK laws, which recognize refugee obligations. The government believes the changes are lawful.
The asylum seeker issue has been a source of significant tension in the UK. Last month, a far-right group violently attacked a hotel housing asylum seekers. The government has been accused of encouraging the violence after Home Secretary Braverman said the tensions were “understandable” and denied protesters were “racist or bigoted”. The government’s proposed laws also include an end to the use of hotels, with plans to detain asylum seekers in disused military bases.