Wednesday Mar 15, 2023
On the 26th of February, national hockey player, Shahida Raza, and another Pakistanis lost their lives when the boat they were on crashed against rocks on the southern coast of Italy. The boat was carrying around 200 migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other countries, as allegedly facilitated by two Turkish and two Pakistani human traffickers.
Raza’s sister has since told the BBC that she was trying to reach Italy to secure treatment not available in Pakistan for her three-year-old son who suffered a stroke and consequently paralysis at the age of just 40 days.
Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that 17 Pakistani nationals had survived the shipwreck, but that 3 others had lost their lives in an unrelated shipwreck near Libya a while earlier. Al Jazeera reported that, according to an anonymous official of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), an investigation has subsequently been opened “into criminal elements involved in trafficking.” Amidst a resurgence in terrorism and this tumultuous period of economic and political instability, the Pakistani government will be faced with the difficult task of preventing human traffickers from taking monetary advantage of desperate people.
These tragic deaths are in addition to the more than 50,000 migrants known to have died since 2014, according to a report released by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in November 2022. More than half of these deaths occurred on routes to and within Europe and, while the nationality of over 30,000 of the total people is not known, the top three countries of origin for those identified were Afghanistan, Syria and Myanmar from which they were seeking refuge.
Despite this tragic reality, dehumanising language about migrants has become increasingly mainstream in the UK and the government is moving to introduce new legislation to tackle illegal migration, which has sparked concern among human rights groups. Just over a week after the shipwreck near Italy, the UK government introduced the Illegal Migration Bill to parliament on the 7th of March. If this Bill is passed, anyone who takes a similarly illegal route to the UK will be detained and removed, regardless of how legitimate their claim to asylum might otherwise be.
According to the UK Parliament website, the purpose of this Bill is 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”. The Bill would empower the Secretary of State to:
1) Make ”arrangements for the removal of people who enter the UK illegally after 7th of March, 2023, have no permission to be in the UK and did not come directly from a place where they fear persecution.”
2) And to refuse to ”process any asylum claim they make, along with any claim that removal to their country of origin would be a breach of their human rights.”
Asylum seekers would only be moved to their home country if it is listed as safe, which includes the 27 EU countries plus Albania, Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Therefore, people from Pakistan would not be removed to Pakistan but to a chosen “third” country considered to be “safe,” because Pakistan is not listed among those 57 countries or territories to which a person may be removed.
MPs voted the Bill through the second reading on the 13th of March, but it still has to pass through a third reading of the House of Commons before being considered by the House of Lords. Opposition MPs and even some dissenting Conservative MPs have warned that the Bill will not solve the issue of illegal migration, despite claims by the government.
When the Bill was first introduced, UNHCR expressed its profound concern at its contents saying that, in its current form, it 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.”
European Home Affairs Commissioner, Ylva Johansson, had similarly warned the British Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, that she thought that the Bill was “violating international law.” In addition, according to the Independent, Braverman conceded that there was a chance that the Bill would be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR), a departure from which could result in the removal of parts of the UK’s trade agreement with the EU, warn legal experts.
Allegations of racism and double standards have also been increasingly levelled against successive UK governments who have been in power since the Russian invasion of Ukraine over how they have received Ukrainian refugees as opposed to refugees from non-European countries. Indeed, Nimco Ali, a former adviser to the Home Office and a child refugee, said that it appeared “racist” how the government had not opened routes for other refugees as it had for Ukrainian refugees.
The Nationality and Borders Act, which became law last year, had raised similar concerns to this Bill. The UNHCR warned that its discriminatory two-tier system could deter desperate people from making their way to the UK who would have arrived spontaneously or through countries deemed safe. The controversial Clause 9 also remains within the Act, such that the Secretary of State can deprive a person of their citizenship without telling them if it is reasonably considered necessary, which critics suggest could increase child statelessness and exacerbate ethnic disparities because it will overwhelmingly be used against non-white people.
If the Illegal Migration Bill is passed into law, as with the Nationality and Borders Bill, the UK will edge ever closer to the isolationist and exclusionary version of itself that Brexiteers hailed as an act of ‘taking back control’ and ‘self-determination.’ If the UK were ever to become a conflict zone or a site of intense persecution, it is hoped that the countries to which its people would illegally flee out of desperation would not be met with the same coldness as the current government seeks to receive asylum-seekers. But detached privilege often results in the death of empathy.
The writer is a researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.