“Take Back Control” was the slogan with which the British political upper class won the Brexit vote. The saying also referred to the immigrants who, according to populist politics in Westminster, would bring about the island’s demise. Almost four years have now passed, the promise of isolation is just as long in coming as the sinking of the island: with 606,000 immigrants, migration is higher than ever, while at the same time there is a lack of essential workers in core sectors.
Instead of seeking viable and lawful solutions, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is simply focusing on tackling illegal immigration across the English Channel, which accounted for around 45,000 people last year. The proposed immigration law stipulates that all people who arrive via the English Channel are to be deported to the East African country of Rwanda and are denied the right to return. According to a YouGov poll conducted in March, 32 percent of the population supports the law. Due to a court verdict that declared these deportations illegal, the law has not yet been implemented. Now Westminster is trying a new trick and even tightening up its plans by bringing up a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic and the internment of refugees on a cargo ship.
For the Tories, the summer months were an endurance test of their migration policy. Although immigration across the English Channel, at around 45,000 people, was only a small proportion of the total migration of 1.2 million people last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made it his core pledge to stop so-called small boats “to put a halt on criminal gangs”. So far without success.
The number of arrivals is almost the same as last year. A higher volume is to be expected in the months of August, September and October in particular. Last year, 51 percent of all immigrants came to the island via the route during these months. What’s more, the heart of his anti-immigration course, the internationally controversial “anti-immigration law,” has lost its appeal as it has been blocked by court cases for months. Sunak recently announced that he would appeal to the country’s Supreme Court after an appeals court ruled that the law was unlawful.
According to the law, anyone who enters British soil via an illegal route such as the English Channel, regardless of their country of origin, could be automatically denied the right to seek asylum and, as previously envisaged, be deported to the east African country of Rwanda. There, the person could go through an asylum procedure and, if granted, not return to Great Britain, but settle in Rwanda. If rejected, the asylum seekers would have to return to their home countries. London reached an agreement with Kigali on this in June last year. Around 140 million pounds (162 million euros) have flowed into the country so far.
Because it is uncertain whether British flights to a third country can even take off, the ruling party is now using other means to sharpen its migration agenda – for example with the “Ascencion Island” solution. According to the “Guardian”, the parliamentary undersecretary at the Home Office said that the plan to send people to the island could replace the government’s Rwanda program if that failed.
A volcanic island in the middle of the South Atlantic, around 1,600 kilometers from the African mainland, is supposed to help the British government out of its misguided migration policy. The UK Home Office has confirmed media reports that London is examining Ascension Island as a potential location for outsourcing asylum seekers. The idea is not new, it was already discussed under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson – and then quickly rejected for cost reasons. The fact that the Ministry of the Interior is now bringing out the draft again illustrates the explosive situation in which the government, weak in the election polls, finds itself. The party is currently 17 percents behind Labour.
Another government coup can be found on the British coastline. The Bibby Stockholm is currently docked in Portland Harbour, Dorset. Over 500 refugees were accommodated there. The ship looks more like a floating block of flats or, depending on the perspective, like a floating prison. At least for the time being, lawyers from refugee organizations have stopped the transport to the cargo ship anchored in the port of Portland in Dorset.
The internment ship has become synonymous with the British government’s migration policy. While the country is suffering from the highest inflation of all G-7 countries, increasing poverty and an increasingly overwhelmed health system, the prime minister and his populist interior minister are emphasizing the importance of the “Stop the Boats” mission, i.e. preventing every week a few hundred refugees from France flee to England in rubber boats. Under the new, controversial migration law, the government can automatically classify refugees as illegal and deport them.
However, the law does not solve the actual problem, the bureaucratic backlog of asylum applications. Around 166,000 applicants are currently waiting for a decision. The number has skyrocketed by more than 400 percent since December 2017, even as the number of asylum applications rose by just 160 percent. The main reasons are the partly excessive bureaucracy after Brexit, but also the poor staffing of the relevant authorities.
The government is now accommodating many refugees in hotels, which, according to the Ministry of the Interior, costs around 6.5 million euros a day. Because of the high costs, the government decided in April to use the ship, especially since “cargo ship” sounds better than “hotel” to conservative voters.
The Bibby Stockholm, 90 meters long and 27 meters wide, has an eventful history: it was built in 1976 and converted from a cargo ship to a container ship in 1992. In the 1990s it was in Hamburg, and more than 50 homeless people were temporarily housed there at the time. In the 2000s it anchored in Rotterdam to house asylum seekers. In 2008, a refugee died on the ship of heart failure. According to an investigation report published years later, the poor medical care on the ship was to blame.
The ship was later used by a company in Scotland to house workers, some of whom criticized the inhumane conditions on board. For the past few years, the ship has sat empty – until someone in the British government remembered it. The contract with the owner, the British company Bibby Line, will initially run for 18 months.
In early July, more than 50 British refugee organizations wrote an open letter. In it, they not only called on the company to disclose the problematic past of its founder – who is accused of links to the slave trade in the early 19th century – but also to prevent refugees from being accommodated on their ships.
“In our opinion, quartering people on a container ship who have had traumatic experiences, particularly on ships, is cruel and inhuman,” the letter said. And: The fact that the British government intends to accommodate two people in the cabins designed for one person is “like in many British prisons”.
Now the Fire Brigade Union, FBU, wrote a letter to Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Packing 500 people together on a ship whose accommodation containers are designed for just over 200 is “a serious risk”. The FBU fears a “tragedy” if the government actually accommodates refugees there without further security measures, as announced. The FBU has not yet received an answer, but the housing is now shut-down by local authorities: the vessel was evacuated, after bacteria that can cause Legionnaires’ disease were found in the water system, leaving in disarray plans to showcase the government’s strategy.
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