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Dangers of the UK’s offshoring asylum proposal

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On Tuesday 16th November, conservative MP and former minister David Davis objected the government’s offshoring asylum proposals in an amendment tabled on the same day. He is calling for the removal of this clause that he qualified as “impractical and potentially cruel” on a twitter post.  

Introduced in the House of Commons last summer, the Nationality and Border Bill, also called the Anti-Refugee Bill by the opponents, entered Committee Stage in September 2021. The bill redefines the Refugee Convention and aims to make major changes to the asylum system in the UK, such as criminalising people that help those seeking asylum, including people saving lives at sea, or introducing four-year prison sentence for people travelling to the UK irregularly to claim asylum.  

As part of the debate around the measures and claims of this bill, one keeps dividing the Committee: the Offshore Detention plan. If accepted by Members of Parliament, the bill would give the Government the right to send people seeking asylum in the UK to another country while they wait for their claim to be assessed. “Offshore Detention involves one country paying off another to detain people seeking asylum and assess their claims,” explains the campaign Detention Action on their website. They also warn that refugees will most likely be locked up in detention camps indefinitely while waiting for their claim to be assessed. “These camps would be hidden from public view and almost impossible to access for journalists and human rights monitors,” they said.  

Australia is taken as an example in this debate because they have achieved the offshoring of asylum procedures. From 2012 to 2014, all asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Australia were sent to offshore processing centres for determination of their claim protection, and held there indefinitely. Australian Government flew people to detention camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on the Pacific Island of Nauru. On a report written by Zoe Garner, Policy and Advocacy Manager of The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigration, she recalls that “there is a very significant body of evidence that the Australian experiment has been disastrous in terms of the human rights and dignity of the people concerned.” 

Detention Action has collected testimonies from people who’ve experienced it, including Iranian artist and filmmaker Ellie Shakiba. She told them that they were held in a former phosphate mine, living in plastic tents surrounded by toxic black mould. They would spend days without electricity as they didn’t have access to basic sanitation such as clean water or medical treatment.  

In August 2021, researchers from the University of New South Wales published a report that noted that paediatricians working in offshore facilities said that the children in their care were among the “most traumatised they had ever seen” and that medical teams from Médecins Sans Frontières similarly described suffering that was among the worst they had ever encountered, including among victims of torture. In February 2020, the International Criminal Court (ICC) declared Australia guilty of breaching international human rights obligations through their offshore processing system for asylum seekers. They’ve amounted it as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.  

According to the Refugee Council of Australia statistics, more than 7,000 people were sent offshore since August 2012, 18 people have died, 1,156 were transferred to Australia, and 128 remained on the islands by July 2021. Detention Action also outlined that the offshore detention plan had caused numerous cases of violence, sexual assault and hundreds of cases of child abuse.  

“This legacy is not one that the British state should be emulating, especially in such vague and incomplete terms as presented in this Bill,” wrote Garner. “It would likewise be extremely difficult to monitor and ensure that minimum standards of dignity and rights were respected in an offshore location.” 

As the Government sees the Nationality and Border Bill as “the cornerstone of the New Plan for Immigration”, willing to “fix the broken asylum system”, many charities and organisations are protesting against the Bill and warning of the dangers of the new plan. Amnesty International claimed that this bill will make the system worse and that, as the Government say this is an emergency situation, very few people claim asylum in the UK and numbers have remained stable in the past two years.  

As the bill should fulfil international obligations including under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international organisation recalls that it actually undermines several international obligations under the Refugee Convention and under international law including duties to protect life at sea and to provide stateless children with citizenship. Moreover, they’ve outlined that unlike what the Government claims, the bill will allow smugglers to thrive and increase exploitation of people seeking asylum even after arrival.  

At the moment, the bill is still in the House of Commons and is at its report stage – the last step before the third reading.  

Sources: Amnesty International, Detention Action, David Davis Twitter, Guardian, The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigration, Refugee Council of Australia, Gov.uk 

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