The Prime Minister’s plans to crack down on small boat crossings are a “very frightening prospect” that could push asylum seekers to make even deadlier sea crossings and stowaway in plane wheels, humanitarian workers have said.
On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak’s Government launched plans for new hardline legislation that will prevent people who arrive via small boats from claiming asylum in the UK and from returning once removed.
They will also be moved to a “safe third country” such as Rwanda. But before their case is decided they face detention, potentially for long periods.
Humanitarian workers dispute that the proposed legislation in the Illegal Migration Bill will deter asylum seekers from making the dangerous, and often deadly, journeys but argue that it will make them even more vulnerable.
Mr Sunak will be visiting Paris on Friday for a bilateral summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, where the Prime Minister will also push for tougher enforcement on the French coast as part of his plans to “stop the boats”.
Jon Featonby, refugee and asylum policy at Refugee Council, told i: “At the moment, most people who are crossing the Channel in small boats are coming from Northern France over towards Dover, which although very, very dangerous is a relatively short stretch of water.
“What it [the legislation] might do is that it would encourage people to take other dangerous journeys, which might mean taking a more dangerous and longer sea journey to get to the UK. It might mean… people clinging to the wheels of aeroplanes, which is very, very dangerous as well. So these knock on consequences of legislation like this, it can just lead to people taking greater risks, than they’re currently doing.”
Mr Featonby added: “The consequences are that people take ever greater risks. So we see more loss of life than we have currently seen.”
Flore Judet, communications officer at French NGO Utopia 56 said tougher enforcement in France could push those travelling on boats to start their journeys further and further away from the English coast.
“Recently people have been stopped at Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, which I think triples the distance to England, because they try to avoid the police [in France] and not be stopped and they take more and more risks to avoid being stopped,” Ms Judet said.
It is expected that Mr Sunak, who is due to meet with Mr Macron on Friday, will focus on securing an agreement for France to step up beach patrols to intercept asylum seekers launching dinghies on the Channel.
Ms Judet said while legal and safe routes are the only real solution to the crisis, the pair should ensure their governments stopped delivering speeches that criminalised and stigmatised asylum seekers, and “invest more in safety than in security”.
Humanitarian organisations also said that mandatory detention for asylum seekers in the UK could lead to a repeat of squalid conditions seen at the Manston immigration centre.
“It could be really dangerous for everyone, and it’s totally against human rights,” Ms Judet said.
Mr Featonby said there is a “real danger” the policy, if introduced, could traumatise people.
He added: “We know from our work of having supported people who are in detention, or who have been detained, about the really damaging mental and physical health impacts being detained can have. The legislation seems to be proposing that people who arrive via small boats could be detained for a minimum of 28 days but it could be indefinite while the Home Office tries to arrange their removal.”
Care4Calais founder Clare Moseley told i if passed the legislation could hamper the refugee crisis charity’s ability to assist asylum seekers in need.
Ms Moseley said: “Our concern will be would we be able to access them because if people are detained rather than being in hotels, then we might not be able to help them and that is a very frightening prospect.”
The people who depend on Care4Calais often arrive with nothing much more than the clothes they are wearing, she said. Under new plans they could face mandatory detention and limited access to essential items and services.
Ms Moseley added: “We help them get access to medical and dental support, to lawyers, to education, to everything. There’s so much help they need and support that they get that if we are not able to access them, to help them, I would be incredibly concerned for their welfare, for their access to lawyers.”
Human rights worker Aalia Khan told i: “It will massively impact the work that we do in lots of different ways. We will be needing to provide more support to asylum applicants there will just be more barriers for that.”
Matilda Bryce, asylum and migration advocacy at Freedom From Torture, said: “The new bill will only increase the risks that people who are fleeing danger face. Mandatory detention, limited access to legal safeguards, and potential removal by force will be highly traumatising for our clients and other refugees who have experienced extreme trauma, many of whom are fleeing countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.
“In addition, there are legal risks of not having your claim fairly heard in the UK and potentially therefore being removed somewhere that isn’t safe, and then all the mental health harms of those threats on an already vulnerable population.”
The legality of the plan to crack down on small boat crossings has been questioned, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman having written to MPs admitting there is a “more than 50 per cent chance” that the Illegal Migration Bill is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. She maintains that it does not breach international law.
If the legislation does progress the Government could face legal challenges from humanitarian organisations.
Ms Khan said she did not think mounting a legal challenge to the plans “would ever be ruled out”.
“Many organisations will be digesting this new bill and speaking with their legal teams. As human rights organisations, it is our job to uphold the rule of law for the most vulnerable, including in our case torture survivors, when these rights are threatened,” Ms Bryce said.