openJustice: Opinion

Government rhetoric on migrants is a smoke screen for a deeper agenda

For now, the rule of law is providing hope to people claiming asylum in the UK. But the government has other ideas.

Sonya Sceats
4 September 2020
Will the British public’s fears about border control overrule its appetite to defend its own hard-won freedoms?
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Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
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A political storm is raging over desperate people crossing the Channel in small dinghies. Last month we saw the death of a young Sudanese man, Abdulfatah Hamdallah who drowned trying to cross from France to England. And in the same week, the death of a 16 year old boy, also thought to be Sudanese.

Several torture survivors we help at Freedom from Torture have travelled this way dating as far back as 2017 and the pandemic has led to more people making this dangerous journey due to the unavailability of other routes.

The deaths feels sadly inevitable, given the absence of safe and legal alternatives. Instead of fixing this, the government has stoked anti-migrant sentiment by painting those arriving as invaders, misrepresenting their reasons for coming here, and threatening to call in the Navy to push people back to France.

Unsurprisingly, far right, anti-migrant sentiments have been given a new lease of life. The hateful barrage of comments written by Daily Mail readers following the death of the 16 year old boy were shocking, even by today’s standards. And it’s reported that some far right groups are planning a day of protests in Dover.

Why fan the flames of public hostility in this way? Several media articles quote a "Whitehall source" blaming "lefty lawyers" for enabling drawn out asylum applications and getting in the way of removal flights. The Home Office published a (now removed) video on social media attacking “activist lawyers” This is not the first time the government has baulked at being held in check by our legal system. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled against its prorogation of Parliament last year, the government has been determined to limit the power of the judiciary to stand in its way, and has launched a review of Judicial Review - the process by which citizens can challenge the lawfulness of government decisions.

The government’s treatment of asylum seekers over the past few months has been lamentable. At Freedom from Torture we have seen a steady stream of people who have been left behind by its Coronavirus response. Many torture survivors we help have been housed in crowded accommodation where social distancing is impossible. People on asylum support were given an increase of just 26p per day to cope with the extra demands of surviving a pandemic, bringing their weekly allowance to £38 per week. Asylum seekers held in close quarters in detention centres were released only after a series of legal challenges.

One very vulnerable young mother and survivor of torture we work with reported ongoing problems with another tenant to us just prior to lockdown. The tenant was threatening and had physically assaulted her, the police had been called. She was anxious about moving elsewhere and asked if the perpetrator could be moved instead. The Home Office’s domestic abuse policy requires it to consider relocating the perpetrator but defines this person as someone in a familial or intimate relationship with the victim.

Despite our arguments that sharing accommodation with someone could be seen as the same thing, we could not persuade the Home Office to act. The young woman was forced to request alternative accommodation herself, a process that itself took several weeks and left her at the mercy of her abuser in the meantime.

We are supporting this client in bringing a judicial review to challenge the lawfulness of the domestic abuse policy. If it is successful, it will help a number of other clients currently trapped in similar situations. As the pandemic is forcing people to spend longer periods inside, it appears to be an increasing problem.

For a vulnerable woman and her young son to have to turn to the courts in this way to address an abusive and dangerous situation is appalling. Too often, as the Windrush scandal showed, the Home Office views people’s rights as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a legal obligation to uphold human dignity. Small wonder then, that it is choosing to make lawyers the targets. Belittling their attempts to uphold the law by referring to them as "activists" betrays an obvious disdain for the law itself.

It is in the nature of ministers to find legal constraints irritating, but they tend to lash out most fiercely in the field of migration policy. Theresa May repeatedly railed against human rights laws as a barrier to deportation by fiat and Tony Blair even tried to oust judicial review in asylum and immigration cases.

Now, Boris Johnson bets that the British public’s fears about border control will overrule its appetite to defend its own hard-won freedoms. An attempt to limit judicial review will be followed by plans, already announced, to “update” the Human Rights Act. After Brexit, Dominic Cummings warns in his blog he will be “coming for” a referendum on the European Convention on Human Rights.

Just as Donald Trump whipped up anti-migrant hysteria and promised to build a wall along the US-Mexican border as a prelude to an executive power grab, so too this government intends to make migrants and those who assist them scapegoats in a sweeping bid to weaken checks on power.

The human consequences of this approach are stark. This week, Freedom from Torture was contacted by a law firm helping a torture survivor who arrived in the UK by boat. He claimed asylum on arrival without a lawyer, was subsequently detained and while in detention, attempted suicide. With the help of lawyers, he is now out of detention and being treated in hospital.

Thanks to the rule of law, a life has been saved for now, but for many more the risk remains and our own civil liberties are at risk too. In this era of populist authoritarianism, muscular posturing at the border is often a pretext for the dismantlement of rights, not just for migrants but for citizens as well.

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