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UK’s migrant ban will trigger ‘race to the bottom’ on human rights, MEPs warn

Exclusive: Populists seeking to undermine Refugee Convention may be emboldened by UK plans, say EU politicians

Adam Bychawski
10 March 2023, 12.12pm

MEPs have issued stark warnings about the UK’s new Illegal Migration Bill


Leon Neal/Getty Images

Rishi Sunak’s plans to bar migrants who enter the UK by small boats from claiming asylum could trigger a “race to the bottom” on refugee rights among other countries, MEPs have told openDemocracy.

The Illegal Migration Bill, announced by the prime minister on Tuesday, would give the home secretary, Suella Braverman, powers to deport migrants who cross the Channel before their claims are heard. The United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees has said the proposal would be a “clear breach” of the Refugee Convention.

The bill has alarmed politicians and human rights groups in Europe, who fear that it could embolden populist political parties seeking to dismantle the right to asylum.

“This proposed law is despicable and I do fear a snowball effect. As soon as one state tramples on the right to asylum, other states are quick to follow suit,” Damien Carême, a French Green MEP, told openDemocracy.

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Carême, who sits on the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said that former footballer and sports broadcaster Gary Lineker was right to draw comparisons between language used by the government when setting out the policy and “that used by Germany in the 1930s”.

“It is political cowardice that today’s leaders dare to use this kind of rhetoric, pretending not to see the similarities between their stigmatising, dehumanising speeches, human and asylum rights violations – which were enshrined precisely at the end of the two world wars – and those that have dragged our European continent into horror. Human rights must count above all else,” he said.

Carême’s fears were echoed by Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik, who told openDemocracy that the UK’s government’s plans “may lead to calls for undermining the Refugee Convention”. 

Strik, who also sits on the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said: “I am afraid about this because with the rise of right-wing populist parties, migration has become a popular topic with which politicians think they can easily win votes with, without caring for the fact that it may undermine the necessary societal support for refugees. 

“And also this discussion distracts from what is really needed, namely the creation of a global solution and solidarity for the refugees worldwide. The Second World War has taught us that we can only address the needs of refugees if we all contribute.”

The 1951 Refugee Convention is an international agreement that sets out the rights of refugees around the world. Its main principle is that refugees have the right to protection and cannot be returned to a country where their life or freedom is threatened.

As soon as one state tramples on the right to asylum, other states are quick to follow suit

Damien Carême, a French Green MEP

Sunak’s proposals have already been welcomed by the far right in Italy and France. Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, whose government recently banned charities from rescuing migrants at sea, said the measures were “harsh but fair” in a message on Instagram. French former presidential candidate Eric Zemmour also congratulated Sunak for his stance on Twitter.

Matjaž Nemec, an MEP for the Solvenian Social Democrats and also a member of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee, said it is “extremely concerning” that the UK is diverging from international law.

“The right to asylum is one the biggest civilizational achievements and was born in Europe in the aftermath of the most brutal and bloody conflict the world has ever seen. Such a draconian step would present one of the most serious threats to civil liberties in the UK, which could indeed trigger a race to the bottom. 

“It is sad to see how far the UK has fallen after Brexit moving further and further away from, until recently, never-questioned and universally shared common values,” he told openDemocracy.

Braverman was unable to give the standard formal guarantee that the plan is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights when it was presented to Parliament on Tuesday.

In a letter to MPs, the home secretary later admitted that it had “more than a 50 % chance” of being found to be unlawful.

Earlier this week, Braverman also rebutted comparisons between her new asylum policy and Nazi Germany, telling the BBC that such comments were “disappointing and unhelpful”. 

The UNHCR has said that 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.”

“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,” it added in a statement.

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