How Brexit Gave Us Vile, Broken Politicians Who Despise Human Rights and Seek to Criminalise Refugees: Part Two

19.3.23

The home secretary Suella Braverman laughing hysterically, and entirely inappropriately, during a visit to the UK’s proposed “migrant camp” in Rwanda yesterday, March 18, 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak seemingly emerging from a coffin while announcing the Tory government’s shameful ‘Stop the Boats’ policy on March 7, 2023, and then-home secretary Priti Patel smirking at a press conference in Rwanda, announcing the Rwanda plan, on April 14, 2022.

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The second of two articles in which I examine how the Tory government’s vile anti-immigration policies, pursued with such vigour by Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, have their origins in the dangerous isolationism of Brexit, and its unleashing of false and disturbing notions that, post-Brexit, the UK should no longer be constrained by international law. In this first article, I looked at how Brexit happened, how Theresa May paved the way for the shoddy and cruel lawlessness of Patel and Braverman, and how the Tories, even before Brexit, consistently sought to undermine the European Convention on Human Rights, with a particular focus on Theresa May’s obsessive pursuit of the Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada. (See Part One here).

Ruthlessly self-seeking and, morally, a complete vacuum, Boris Johnson swept to power in December 2019 by following the populists’ playbook established by Donald Trump — a three- or four-word slogan, hammered home at every opportunity. For Trump it was ‘Make America Great Again’, while for Johnson it was ‘Get Brexit Done’, delivered despite the evident impossibility of getting it done without consigning us to relentless economic decline and international irrelevance.

While Johnson’s dithering over Covid, his persistent lying and his corruption (not least in fast-tracking billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to cronies during the Covid lockdowns for services that they were patently unable to provide) defined his Premiership, what must not be overlooked is the extent to which he also empowered the far right of the Conservative Party in their rabid enthusiasm for a post-Brexit bonfire of fundamental rights.

Priti Patel declares war on refugees

Priti Patel, born in Britain to Indian parents who had come to the UK in the 1960s from Uganda, where her grandparents had emigrated and had run a convenience store, pledged to tackle the perceived problem of small boats crossing the English Channel from France, taken by desperate refugees and migrants, largely at the mercy of callous people-smugglers, because of a lack of any viable safe routes to the UK. However, instead of working to establish safe routes, she instead launched her own pet project  — a proposal to send refugees (those seeking asylum in the UK) to a pliable remote location where they would have their asylum claims processed.

In September 2020, the BBC reported that she had considered Ascension Island, 4,000 miles from the UK, but that the Foreign Office had “carried out an assessment for Ascension — which included the practicalities of transferring migrants thousands of miles to the island — and decided not to proceed.” A Home Office source, however, said that ministers were still looking at “every option that can stop small boat crossings [of the English Channel] and fix the asylum system.”

Patel was particularly inspired by Australia’s widely condemned policy of turning back boats, or, if asylum seekers manage to reach Australian waters, holding them in one of two ‘offshore processing centres‘ — one on the Pacific island nation of Nauru and another on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea — while their claims are processed.

Critics have pointed out that conditions in the camps “are totally inadequate, citing poor hygiene, cramped conditions, unrelenting heat and a lack of facilities”, as the BBC explained in 2017, adding that “[h]olding asylum seekers in indefinite detention has caused widespread psychological harm, and exposed them to dangers including physical and sexual assaults.” Shockingly, even if those seeking asylum are recognised as refugees, they are not allowed to settle in Australia, and are, instead, settled in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.

When the Ascension Island proposal was first reported, Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UK Representative of UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees) pointed out that, as the BBC described it, “the proposal would breach the UK’s obligations to asylum seekers”, and, in Pagliuchi-Lor’s words, would “change what the UK is — its history and its values”. Speaking to the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee, she also pointed out that the Australian model had “brought about huge suffering for people, who are guilty of no more than seeking asylum, and it has also cost huge amounts of money.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill

Priti Patel, however was undeterred. In September 2021, she introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill, which aped Australia’s broken “offshoring” model, containing, as the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants explained, “broad powers to send asylum seekers to offshore detention facilities”, and “powers to push back asylum seeker boats at sea, which is contrary to the law of the sea.”This latter proposal was dropped when it faced legal challenges, but the ‘offshoring’ proposal remained very much alive.

Just as alarmingly, the bill also treated with contempt the core protection for refugees guaranteed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which, of course, a more enlightened UK 72 years ago was a signatory.

The bill proposed the creation of a two-tier system of assessing asylum seekers, dividing them into those arriving by legal routes, and those arriving irregularly. The former would, in theory, “get indefinite leave to remain once they arrive”, as the Law Society explained, although, as the bill’s many, many critics also explained, safe routes are almost entirely non-existent, consisting solely of an Afghan resettlement programme based on our obligations to people left behind when the US-led occupation ended, which has almost entirely failed to live up to its promises, and, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some efforts to help fleeing Ukrainians. Everyone else in those small boats that so obsess the government and racist Britons is in that perilous position precisely because no safe and legal routes to apply for asylum actually exist.

For those arriving in the UK by irregular means — almost everyone seeking asylum, in other words — the bill proposed that they would be treated as criminals, facing up to four years’ imprisonment and a revocation of their ability to ever claim asylum in the UK. And even if any of these irregular asylum seekers managed to successfully claim asylum, they would “receive a new ‘temporary protection status’ rather than the right to settle”, and would “also have limited family reunion rights and reduced access to benefits.”

One huge legal problem with this two-tier approach, as Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor explained to Newsnight, is that “the 1951 [Refugee] Convention … does not allow for differentiation between refugees on the basis of the way they arrived”, and the Law Society added that, in their opinion, a two-tier system “risks a breach of article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention”, relating to “non-penalization, detention, and protection.”

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor also noted that the bill breached the Refugee Convention because it “revolves around the notion that refugees are required to seek asylum in the first safe country they find,” when that is simply not true.

While some of Patel’s cruel and shockingly ill-thought out plans came from the Australian model, her contempt for the Refugee Convention very evidently came from the post-Brexit notion, embraced by the Tory far right, who now, alarmingly, held the highest offices of state, that the normal rules no longer applied; that Britain, freed from the illusory yoke of EU tyranny, could now do whatever it wanted.

Despite the best efforts of the House of Lords to amend the bill, it was passed mostly intact, and by the time it became law, in April 2022, Patel was ready to spring another vile surprise on asylum seekers and on all decent British people — the Rwanda asylum plan, or, to give it its official name, the UK and Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership.

The vile Rwanda plan

In Tory Britain since 2010, there have only really been two types of days — bad days and very bad days — and April 14, 2022 was definitely one of the latter, as Boris Johnson announced the launch of a £120m five-year agreement whereby, as Wikipedia described it, ”people identified by the United Kingdom as being illegal immigrants or asylum seekers will be relocated to Rwanda for processing, asylum and resettlement. Those successful in claiming asylum will remain in Rwanda and not be permitted to return to the United Kingdom.” A smug Patel, sitting with the Rwandan foreign minister Vincent Biruta in Kigali, claimed that ”the ‘vast majority’ of those arriving in the UK ‘illegally’ would be considered for relocation to Rwanda.”

As the BBC reported, “More than 160 charities and campaign groups … called on the government to scrap the plans in an open letter that described the scheme as ‘shamefully cruel’”, with Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, stating they they were “appalled by the government’s cruel and nasty decision” that would “do little” to deter people from coming to the UK.

Nevertheless, on May 14, Johnson announced that 50 asylum seekers had been told that they would be sent to Rwanda, and a flight was subsequently scheduled for June 14, with around 30 people reportedly assigned to it. As the day arrived, however, that number “had been reduced to seven after successful legal challenges had removed a number of people from it”, as Wikipedia explained, and “on the evening of 14 June it was confirmed the flight would no longer depart on that date following an interim measure from the European Court of Human Rights”, in which the court ruled that “an Iraqi man known as KN faced ‘a real risk of irreversible harm’ if he remained on the flight”, as the BBC described it, adding that, “Whereas the High Court in London had found that KN could be returned to the UK if his bid to overturn the Rwanda transportation policy succeeded, the ECtHR said there was no legally enforceable mechanism to ensure he could come back from east Africa.”

“That interim measure”, as Wikipedia added, “led the other six passengers to appeal, some to judges in London”, and, as a result, “The removal orders were scrapped and the flight was cancelled.”

In response to the ruling, the Daily Telegraph interviewed Patel, running an article entitled, ‘“Scandalous” grounding of Rwanda flight shows it’s time we quit ECHR.’ Patel told the paper, “I’m not an advocate of European institutions, I never have been”, and, as the Telegraph put it, “questioned whether the decision … was motivated by anti-Brexit sentiment.”

“You’ve got to look at the motivation”, Patel said, adding, “How and why did they make that decision? Was it politically motivated? I’m of the view that it is, absolutely. The opaque way this court has operated is absolutely scandalous. That needs to be questioned.”

Patel’s Rwanda plan still exists, of course, although no one has yet been sent there, even though the scheme was given a boost three months ago, when High Court judges ruled that it was legal.

Suella Braverman: dredging the very bottom of the toxic, racist barrel

In the meantime, however, Patel lost her job when Boris Johnson was finally sunk by his own corruption, although her replacement, Suella Braverman, is, astonishingly, even more cruel, on the one hand, and, on the other, just as dim-witted when it comes to the nuances and complications of immigration policy. Appointed by Liz Truss, during the brief idiocy of her Premiership, she was retained by Rishi Sunak (who had been turned down as leader of the Party just months before by its mainly old, white and racist members), when he replaced Truss as the latest Prime Minister foisted on an electorate that didn’t vote for them.

Braverman, born in London to Indian parents who had emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Mauritius and Kenya, trained as a barrister, although, as a fervent Brexiteer, she is at least as contemptuous of the law as any of her less legally qualified colleagues, seeing Britain through that distorting prism of Brexit triumphalism that is not only in compete denial of objective reality, but that also involves another slow-burning manifestation of the vileness of Brexit — the notion that, having left the EU, the UK is fundamentally, a legal tabula rasa, a blank slate on which ministers can invent whatever they want, with no regard for history or legal precedents, and certainly with no regard for the ECHR or any legally binding international treaties to which the UK committed itself prior to the great liberation of Brexit.

While Priti Patel largely allowed her superior smirk to speak for her, Braverman, who constantly behaves as though she is trying to impress a roomful of white nationalists with how extreme she can be, persistently spouts toxic racist language that is, frankly, unforgivable coming from the mouth of a government minister.

In October, she stated, “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda, that’s my dream, it’s my obsession,” and in November she spoke about “stopping the invasion on our southern coast” — language drawn from the Nigel Farage playbook. Alf Dubs, the veteran Labour peer who arrived in the UK as a child fleeing the Nazis, later described her words as “deeply and personally upsetting”, and “a low point of his half century in politics”, but there was worse to come.

Braverman’s ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, unveiled on March 7 — on another of those very bad days in Tory Britain — is allegedly intended to “prevent and deter unlawful migration, and in particular migration by unsafe and illegal routes, by requiring the removal from the United Kingdom of certain persons who enter or arrive in the United Kingdom in breach of immigration control.” However, the most prominent breach, as she herself was obliged to admit, was that, as the first page of the bill prominently states, she “was unable to make a declaration under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998 that the Bill’s provisions are compatible with the ECHR.”

This is, presumably, the logical end point of the Tories’ obsession with the ECHR, nudging us, perhaps, even closer to the darkest of all days when the far-right Brexit Tory Party withdraws from the Council of Europe. For now, however, the admission is an acknowledgment that Braverman’s wretched bill will undoubtedly be subject to robust legal challenges, as is entirely appropriate, because, as UNHCR explained in a press release about the Bill:

In its current form, the Bill compels the Home Secretary to deny access to the UK asylum system to those who arrive irregularly. Rather than being provided with protection, these asylum-seekers would instead be subject to detention in the UK, while arrangements are pursued to remove them to another country.

The legislation, if passed, would amount to an asylum ban — extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances.

The effect of the bill (in this form) would be to deny protection to many asylum-seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case. 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.

Most people fleeing war and persecution are simply unable to access the required passports and visas. There are no safe and “legal” routes available to them. Denying them access to asylum on this basis undermines the very purpose for which the Refugee Convention was established. The Convention explicitly recognises that refugees may be compelled to enter a country of asylum irregularly.

As UNHCR added, “Based on the Home Office’s most recently published data, the vast majority of those arriving to the UK in small boats over the Channel would be accepted as refugees were their claims to be determined. Branding refugees as undeserving based on mode of arrival distorts these fundamental facts.”

When challenged about the practicalities of the bill, Braverman responded with outlandish claims that even Nigel Farage might have paused before uttering, writing a column for the Daily Mail in which she stated, “In the face of today’s global migration crisis, yesterday’s laws are simply not fit for purpose. There are 100 million people displaced around the world, and likely billions more eager to come here if possible.” She added, “They are already coming here in their tens of thousands. And they will not stop until we’ve made it crystal clear: Arrive illegally and you will be liable for detention and swiftly removed — to your home country or to a safe third country like Rwanda. That is precisely what the Illegal Migration Bill will do. That is how we will stop the boats.”

Gavin Barwell, formerly Theresa May’s chief of staff, responded with incredulity, “Is there a problem with people illegally crossing the Channel? Yes.” he tweeted, adding, “Are 100 million people trying to come here? Of course not. The Home Secretary should be utterly ashamed of herself for resorting to the language of extremists.”

Sadly, while Braverman’s hatred of refugees — in which she appears to have the full support of Rishi Sunak — looks like a desperate attempt to distract from the government’s abject failures in almost every aspect of political life by appealing to its most racist and xenophobic supporters, the Bill’s incoherence is such that, if it were to be passed (having shamefully passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons on Monday), it can only lead to a situation in which the government is required to hold tens of thousands of asylum seekers in detention centres, at a cost of billions of pounds, because it has no way of sending anyone back anywhere.

Since leaving the EU, the UK has failed to negotiate any bilateral arrangements with EU member states for the return of asylum seekers, to replace the Dublin Regulation, “the EU law which sets out which member state is responsible for the examination of an asylum application”, from which the UK excluded itself via Brexit on December 31, 2020, as the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ website explains, adding that, although the Bill identifies 57 countries “to which a person can be removed, including all EU states”, and also including eight countries in Africa which “are identified as safe ‘in respect of men’ only”, the UK “has no arrangements in place that would enable the transfer of asylum seekers to safe third countries in practice.”

The Refugee Council has stated that the Bill “will result in tens of thousands of refugees who would have been granted asylum in the UK being locked up in detention [and] treated as criminals”, noting that “[t]he cost to the taxpayer based on the Home Office prediction of 65,000 [people] making the crossing in 2023 would be £219m per year for 28 days in detention or £1.4bn for 6 months.”

Braverman clearly has no problem with this, as she told Parliament that the government will “roll out a programme of increasing immigration detention capacity”, which reportedly includes two disused RAF bases, but it seems unlikely that her plans will get that far, when, at their heart, they involve the illegal criminalisation of everyone seeking refuge in the UK.

As the EU Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, has already told Suella Braverman, she considers that the Bill “is violating international law”, adding, “You have to have some kind of individual assessment of people coming before you just put them into detention.”

A call for compassion

The UK is not the only country grappling with perceived problems involving immigration, although it is important to note that the numbers of people seeking asylum here are considerably less than in other European countries. As UNHCR has explained, “In the year ending September 2021, Germany received the highest number of asylum applicants (127,730) in the EU+, followed by France (96,510). When compared with the EU+ for the same period, the UK received the 4th largest number of applicants (44,190 – including main applicants and dependents). This equates to 8% of the total asylum applicants across the EU+ and UK combined over that period, or the 18th largest intake when measured per head of population.”

Since 2015, however, when 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe, mostly fleeing the war in Syria, but also including significant numbers of Afghans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Iraqis and Eritreans, a ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality has developed across the EU as a whole, but also, in differing ways, on a country by country basis (in the UK, for example, it sadly helped to fuel the Brexit vote).

Logic dictates that, sadly, as the fallout from conflicts and economic exploitation around the world continues (with much of that involving the West), and with the climate crisis undoubtedly increasing the number of refugees in the years to come (for which again, the West bears particularly responsibility), the countries of Europe face a fork in the road: one leads to ever-increasing cruelty, while the other leads to an acceptance that we must do more, not less to help those fleeing all manner of intolerable conditions, from war, drought and floods to economic devastation.

The particular problem for the UK, however, remains what it has been since June 23, 2016: the notion, held by a minority of the British people, but, apparently, by a majority of those seeking high office within a succession of Tory governments, that the UK has some kind of right to be more fundamentally isolated than anywhere else, and that, in defiance of economic reality, and the survival of human charity and empathy, this is to be celebrated (for another example, see the wretched ‘Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill’ introduced by the risible nationalist Jacob Rees-Mogg when he was, absurdly, a government minister).

Suella Braverman doesn’t speak for me, and while I wonder what the silence from Britain’s significant population of people of Indian origin means regarding the vile racism and xenophobia of three of their most prominent representatives (Braverman, Sunak and Patel), I also find it somewhat bemusing that none of them seem to have considered that, in persistently appealing to the worst instincts of Britain’s white nationalists, to grubbily keep themselves in power, they haven’t considered that, if suitably empowered, these white nationalists will revive their largely dormant dream from the 1970s: the forced repatriation from the UK of anyone who isn’t white.

Perhaps all they’re waiting for is for the Tory Brexiteers to finally withdraw from the Council of Europe and the ECHR, fulfilling their malevolent aspirations for a ‘sovereign’ Britain entirely alone in the world, in which their barbaric notions of racial purity can once more be revived.

Gary Lineker wasn’t wrong to issue a warning about how Braverman’s ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ is “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ‘30s.”

We outnumber them, but we shouldn’t take any solace from that while our leaders (and, sadly, our would-be future leaders) continue to pander to the worst racist, xenophobic, lawless and isolationist instincts unleashed by Brexit.

It’s time for the decent people of Britain to take a stand.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the second of two articles looking at how the Tory government’s vile anti-immigration policies, pursued with such vigour by Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, have their origins in the dangerous isolationism of Brexit, and its unleashing of false and disturbing notions that, post-Brexit, the UK should no longer be constrained by international law.

    In this second article, I examine the Tory government’s increasingly lawless and heartless approach to immigration — and in particular the small boats crossing the Channel, which refugees are obliged to use because no safe routes exist whereby they can claim asylum — as demonstrated by Priti Patel’s Rwanda plan, and Suella Braverman’s ‘Illegal Migration Bill’, which seeks to criminalise refugees entirely, and which is currently making its way through Parliament.

    And yes, that photo of Suella Braverman, laughing uproariously, and entirely inappropriately, was taken yesterday as she visited the proposed “migrant camp” in Rwanda.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    It is no coincidence that the UK looks more and more like an apartheid state every day.
    The refugee camps proposed look more and more like the “Bantustans” of Apartheid South Africa.
    Most of the refugees on the planet were displaced by imperialist conquest.
    No parent puts their children on a dangerous boat, surrounded by strangers, unless the horror they have fled from is more terrifying than the horror before them.
    Like in the slave days and the gas chambers of Nazi Germany there were traitors who looked like the oppressed but had sold their souls for the material benefits of colonialism and imperialism.
    Racism is central to this dichotomy and extinction event.
    “Fight racism, smash apartheid”, it’s been my mantra for over 4 decades.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Kevin. I’d like to see a bit more discussion in the UK about how it is that we have three people of Indian background driving efforts to prevent any refugees from being allowed to settle in the UK at all. Truly shameful.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    these 3 horrors talk about traitors … traitors to other people of colour the worst types of bowing scraping uncle toms … Braverman Patel Sunak Javid Cleverly … your former colonial masters, despite how much money you have or how useful you think you are …you will never ever sit at the top table … never … never you like the working class traitors and uncle toms Lee Anderson and that Gullis creature you will forever sit at the feet of your masters … under the table … and should you become no longer useful you will be sidelined into oblivion

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Damien. It’s so disgraceful to watch Braverman exulting -exulting! – in preventing anyone else from coming to the UK like her parents did. Such cruelty. That image from Rwanda of her laughing at the “migrant camp” is one of the most shameful things I’ve ever witnessed a senior government official do in our name.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Today the Refugee Council has announced the results of its research estimating, as the Guardian described it, that “the cost of detaining and accommodating people under the UK government’s controversial plans to tackle Channel crossings could amount to more than £9bn in the first three years”, because “more than 250,000 people, including up to 45,000 children, could have their asylum claims deemed inadmissible under the illegal migration bill.” https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/mar/22/channel-crossings-scheme-costs-could-top-9bn-in-three-years

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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