Never let anyone tell you that you can’t make a difference*: UK civil society organisations challenge the government’s hostile environment

by Carmen Caruso, University of Surrey

Following a campaign by UK grassroots and civil society organisations, including torture survivors and refugee activists, the Spanish carrier Privilege Style contracted to fly planes to Rwanda has pulled out from the deal openly admitting that it will not operate any Rwanda deportation flights. As the company runs charter flights on behalf of tour operators, sports teams or VIP customers it may not be hugely affected by public campaign, however it is the stigma of profiting from the pain of others that we would like to draw attention to.

The news has been welcomed by human rights groups and organisations as a victory both for people seeking sanctuary and democratic institutions in general. If the news may offer a momentary sense of relief, this only represents half of the story.

The Nationality and Border Bill of Priti Patel

The episode stands against the background of the infamous Priti Patel’s Nationality and Border Bill. This became law last April, dubbed the “Anti-Refugee Act” by charities and key human rights organisations ranging from Amnesty to Save the Children, as it represents “the biggest attack on the refugee protection system that we have ever seen”.

They have pledged to challenge the law’s outcomes for its violation of refugees rights as enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Suffice to say that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement in response to the Nationality and Border Act. Emphasising the role of the UK as a core Member State that contributed to the draft and ratification of the 1951 Convention, the UNHCR rebuke the UK stance to include a:

“discriminatory two-tiered approach to asylum, differentiating between those who arrive through legal pathways, such as resettlement or family reunion visas, on the one hand, and those who arrive irregularly on the other hand. […]

While UNHCR welcomes the UK’s continued commitment to legal pathways and better integration support offered to resettled and reunited refugee families, it remains clear that resettlement and other legal pathways cannot substitute for or absolve a State of its obligations towards persons seeking asylum at its borders, in its territory, or otherwise under its jurisdiction, including those who have arrived irregularly and spontaneously. This includes those arriving by boat. For the right to seek and enjoy asylum does not depend on the regularity of arrival of an asylum-seeker to a country. In reality, asylum-seekers are often forced to arrive at or enter a territory without prior authorisation.”

Denying protection

In an attempt to surpass the grim ambition of her predecessor, the current Home Secretary Suella Braverman vowed to push forward the plans of Nationality and Borders Act, which already had been condemned as a the pinnacle of UK government’s hostile environment approach to migration.

By illustrating her bid to cut down the numbers of incoming people, Braverman openly admitted at the recent Conservative party conference that it is was her “dream” to see the first flight take off to Rwanda by Christmas carrying people seeking refuge in the UK.  She commented:

“If you deliberately enter the United Kingdom illegally from a safe country, you should be swiftly returned to your home country or relocated to Rwanda. That is where your asylum claim will be considered. […] UK policy on illegal migration should not be derailed by abuse of our modern slavery laws, Labour’s Human Rights Act, or orders of the Strasbourg Court.”

Violation of international obligations

Ms. Braverman is referring here, amongst other things, to her intent to extricate the primacy of British law over rulings from the ECHR, as the first deportation flight to Kigali which was supposed to take off on June 14 was grounded due to direct action by activists and an eleventh hour intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.

Unfortunately, the sentiment aligns with the external dimension of the EU migration policy – mainly motivated by a security-oriented approach , which is different from the concept of safety.

This brings to the fore a series of contradictions relating to national and international policies and the fulfilment of inalienable rights, as alarming reports have registered over the years several instances of excessive use of force by EU Member States’ authorities and EU agencies operating at external borders in the forms of pushbacks, degrading and inhuman treatment of migrants and their arbitrary detention.

Which is the greater contravention?

It seems that devices to deny protection of vulnerable people by state officials as well as the violation of international obligations bring about far greater risks than asylum seekers unable to provide immediate evidence of persecution, trauma or harm.

Additionally, the overt or covert mass criminalization of forced migrants disregards due process, habeas corpus and international humanitarian law.

This undermines the core of modern democracies and leans dangerously in the murky regions of the extra-legal or towards supremacist bias, which ultimately threaten the foundation of the 1949 Council of Europe original project.

A part of human history

Despite cyclical attempts to depict migratory flows as extraordinary, migration has always had a place in human history.

We align with scholars who consider mobility as a fundamental right: as humans we are mobile.

In a context of heightened flows of goods, information, and people across borders human mobility becomes irresistible and migration policies seem inadequate to uphold the primary exercise of an elementary freedom of movement.

If controlling access to formal citizenship as well as social services constitute tools within the armoury of the state’s migration governance, the legal implications, that is, establishing safe routes to asylum or criminalising paperlessness becomes a political choice.

The 1941 Manifesto of Ventotene

The former or the latter can prevent or produce inequalities and social hierarchies which are to this day part and parcel of the logic of social and political exclusion/inclusion embedded in the concept of nation-state’ sovereignty.

The 1941 Manifesto of Ventotene from which the European Union descends envisioned a federation of polities to contain the absolute sovereignty of nation-states, as it was considered the main cause of the wars in Europe, exacerbated by totalitarianism, antisemitism, and racism.

A “shared sovereignty”

Perhaps advancing the vision of a “shared sovereignty”, involving a diffusion of power across multiple levels and actors – movers and non-movers, will help us revive the Ventotene spirit as well as our common history.

As Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism eloquently put it:

“Far from being unitary or monolithic or autonomous things, cultures actually assume more ‘foreign’ elements, alterities, differences than they consciously exclude. Who in Britain or France can draw a clear circle around British London or French Paris that would exclude the impact of India and Algeria upon those two imperial cities?”

(Said 1993: 15)

Why then trample on the remarkable legacy that human mobility has bestowed across all continents rather than honour it?

* Quote by Freedom from Torture on Twitter.