At 9.46am on Wednesday the Home Office canceled a background briefing on the latest in a long line of policy announcements which have so far had no impact whatsoever on tackling small boat numbers.
This time it concerned the finer details of the new Small Boats Operational Command (SBOC); an “ongoing incident in British waters” was given as the reason for the cancellation.
The ongoing incident involved a black dinghy holding 39 people which had started leaking into the English Channel 60 miles south of Home Office HQ seven hours earlier. A passing trawler saved a potential death toll from running into the dozens. Fishermen pulled people from the icy water. Four dead, four still missing. A police investigation is ongoing.
Shocking scenes, but for those who study human migration in the context of the government’s asylum policy, no surprise.
The day before, Rishi Sunak had staked his political credibility on sorting out the small boat crisis, hoping that his big speech on migration would reset the debate. But fundamentally there was no new approach, no new safe passage for asylum seekers. Many more boats are guaranteed to arrive.
Sunak’s rehashing of past policy mistakes was particularly painful for some. Just over a year has passed since a light blue dinghy deflated near last week’s tragedy, drowning at least 27 people. Among those on board was teenager Twana Mamand, desperate to reach her sister in Britain. His body has never been found.
That the worst maritime disaster in the Channel in 30 years has provoked so little change from the British government has led to both disbelief and despair in Twana’s brother, Zana. Zana told from Iraqi Kurdistan Observer: “I think no lesson has been learned from the tragedy that happened to Twana and his friends. Britain still treats refugees with the same policy as before the incident. It has not changed the plans to welcome them.”
The truth is that Britain is less inviting since the 18-year-old drowned in the icy, black water of the world’s busiest shipping port. Five months after Twana’s disappearance, the Interior Ministry announced it would begin sending asylum seekers arriving by small boats to Rwanda. On Monday, the policy faces its acid test when the Supreme Court decides on it.
The policy was unveiled 248 days ago and has already cost £140 million, but not a single asylum seeker has
been deported to landed in Rwanda. Officials now argue that its merit lies in deterrence. Nevertheless, crossings have since increased to record levels. An internal report from the home office question about says so deterrents not work.
Handa Majed from the charity Kurdish umbrella said the threat from Rwanda has not cut through to those in northern France. After interviewing countless smugglers while investigating Channel drownings for last month’s ITV documentary Crossedis her conclusion that the Rwandan threat has not been able to fight back.
“The smugglers lie to the migrants and say that it is very safe, that it is not far. People who come over don’t know it’s dangerous because the smugglers are their only real source of knowledge, Majed said.
Most would assume that in the hours following last week’s tragedy, small boat crossings would have stopped as terror spread among those about to sail. But on the same day, eight boats with 401 people came over.
Much of Sunak’s speech on Tuesday focused on tackling the huge backlog of 100,000 asylum cases, promising to eliminate it by the end of next year. Critics are still not convinced. Nevertheless Observer have learned that the Home Office has secretly introduced an undeclared policy to reduce numbers. Immigration lawyers report that officials have begun giving “second-class refugee protection” to recent small-boat arrivals, rather than full asylum rights, because it is quicker and easier to process.
Under the new approach, small boat arrivals are given 30-month periods of stay that can be withdrawn. Without refugee family reunification rights, refugees must reapply to stay in the UK every 30 months, risking rejection each time.
The measures apply to people who have arrived by small boats since June, when changes under the controversial border bill came into force.
Zehrah Hasan, legal director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), said: “People who have been waiting for years to have their voices heard are now being told their cases are a lower priority as this government wants to prioritize more recent arrivals. This appears to be a sinister attempt by the government to prioritize allocations of second-rate refugee protection.”
The result, Hasan said, will be more small boat crossings and increased asylum bureaucracy.
“This atrocity will only increase the chances of people’s loved ones taking dangerous routes here.” The Home Office said the border bill allowed it for the first time to “differentiate refugees based on how they arrived”.
Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in Rwanda focuses attention on Britain’s global approach to migration. Rather than accepting the mass movement of people, the UK is currently involved in preventing people from crossing borders more than 1,000 miles away, Observer have been told
Britain, rights groups say, is also accused of being potentially complicit in border abuses against refugees on the European mainland. British troops sent to bolster border security in Poland and Lithuania have, the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said, been involved in building fences to prevent refugees from crossing.
The aid was agreed despite well-documented abuses against refugees by authorities in the border areas, including return fire when border guards force people back through the fence, leaving them stranded in forests without shelter or adequate food and water. But when pressed on the matter, Sunak’s government claims to have no information about the abuse or refuses to release its internal evaluation of the case.
New documents released under Freedom of Information reveal that the MoD carried out a human rights assessment of Lithuania’s use of pushbacks, but still decided to go ahead with providing support.
The response also reveals that the UK is refusing to release its assessment.
MSF described British claims of having no evidence of abuse as “confounding” and accused it of “deliberately turning a blind eye” to reality.
New evidence emerged Thursday that dozens of people were violently pushed back at the Lithuanian and Latvian borders with Belarus, left in the frigid forest for weeks. “It is deeply concerning that the UK has provided support to Lithuanian border enforcement, despite being aware of the use of illegal, dangerous return fire,” said Sophie McCann, Associate Legal Officer at MSF UK.
“There is now a clear risk that the UK is complicit in these abuses.”
The Ministry of Defense responded by saying it had no information about abuses at the Polish border, but still did not address questions related to Lithuania.
Back at the UK border, the coastguard has asked ships in the Channel to look for the missing bodies from last week’s tragedy. Zana Mamand wonders if they will ever be found. The grieving process, he knows all too well, will be exhausting for the affected families.
Meanwhile, he is calling for greater compassion in Britain’s asylum debate. More common sense too. “The [the UK] cannot prevent illegal immigration except by opening the legal way. This also has many economic, moral and security benefits for the country to do so.”
Zana urged the world not to forget those who died trying to “achieve a peaceful life”. “Pay attention to your dreams,” he said.
Finally, the Home Office’s SBOC briefing was delayed by two days. At 12.30pm on Friday – four bodies from the latest tragedy remain undiscovered – it moved on. Another announcement promised tough action. Fresh promises to stop the crossings. Nevertheless, this week will start and end with one absolute certainty: the small boats will continue to arrive.