Since 2008, an average of 26.4 million people per year have been forcibly displaced by weather-related hazards. This is the equivalent of one person being displaced per second every day. The UN Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council identify natural disasters as the number one cause for the international displacement of people. Many of those displaced find refuge within their own region or country. In fact, almost two-thirds (61%) of all new internal displacement in 2018 was triggered by natural disasters such as floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts. Others, however, are forced to go abroad and seek refuge in a foreign country.
Migrants fleeing their home country for environmental reasons are informally called “climate refugees.” They broadly fall into two groups: on the one hand, those fleeing immediate natural disasters such as storms, droughts or earthquakes, and on the other hand, those fleeing climate impacts that deteriorate over time, like rising ocean levels and desert expansion. With climate change, the number of both types of climate refugees is set to rise for years to come. The response to this global challenge of displacement has thus far been limited, and protection remains lacking.
Traditional asylum law is based on the 1951 Geneva Convention, which grants a right to asylum to people who “have a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and are unable or unwilling to seek protection from their home countries.” Although the Convention is a living document and it is possible to push the boundaries of these definitions, shoehorning climate refugees into it has proven to be a challenging undertaking. The 1951 definition of a refugee is hard to apply to those who are forced to flee their home due to environmental disasters; climate change does not fall under “persecution,” nor are any of the grounds for persecution compatible with haphazard natural catastrophes.
Environmental migration can take many forms. Sometimes it is forced, sometimes voluntary, often somewhere in a grey zone in between. The very notion of climate refugees seems to challenge the boundaries of asylum law as we know it. It blurs the line between economic and political migrants, a dichotomy which lies at the core of the 1951 Convention. Moreover, instead of focusing cross-border movement as the Geneva Convention does, climate change displacement forces us to consider internal displacement, as the majority of today’s climate refugees are displaced within the borders of their own country. As such, the 1951 definition of a refugee is clearly not applicable to those who are forced to flee their home due to environmental disasters; climate change does not fall under “persecution,” nor are any of the grounds for persecution compatible with haphazard natural catastrophes.
The European Parliament has recognised that the “protection gap” for climate refugees is a problem. In his 2015 State of the Union speech, then European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: 'Climate change is one of the root causes of a new migration phenomenon. Climate refugees will become a new challenge – if we do not act swiftly'. Five years later, there is still no formal legal definition of who exactly qualifies as a climate refugee, nor any formal protection under existing international law.
Laws are slow to adapt to the reality of increasingly frequent and accelerated natural disasters, but there has been some progress. In January, a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee found it unlawful to force climate refugees to return to their home countries. While a UN Committee judgment is not formally binding on countries, it points to legal obligations that countries have under international law, and individual countries have to consider it within their own legal systems.
The ruling is the first of its kind to explicitly find that governments must take into account climate-related human rights violations when they consider deporting asylum seekers. Although on a personal level, the man at the centre of the case, Mr. Teitiota, was not considered at imminent risk of death upon deportation, and therefore lost his case, the ruling did open the door to a more concrete legal framework for climate refugees.
Nature does not stop for anyone; as climate emergencies become more frequent, many more cases like Mr. Teitiota’s will be brought to courts all over the globe. Needless to say, it is beyond time to integrate environmental and climatic factors into migration management laws and policies nationally and internationally, in order to prepare for the waves of climate migration to come.
The "Right to Rent" scheme was introduced as part of the hostile environment rules aimed at restraining illegal immigrants from entering and living in the UK, and came into force in 2016. The policy requires landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants. If they fail to do so, and end up renting out property to undocumented migrants, they can be charged unlimited fines or even a prison sentence.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), a London-based charity, is challenging the lawfulness of this policy in court. Last year, the High Court ruled the scheme unlawful, racially discriminatory, and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government appealed this decision, and on Wednesday, the Court of Appeal allowed the Secretary of State's challenge, finding that although the Right to Rent scheme does lead to discrimination against those who do not hold British passports and those who do not have traditionally ethnically-British attributes, it is an indirect consequence of the scheme’s otherwise legitimate goal to control and curb immigration, and therefore, the policy itself is not unlawful.
Lord Justice Hickinbottom stated: “The discrimination is entirely coincidental, in that the measure does not unlawfully discriminate against the target group but only collaterally because, in implementing the Scheme, as a result of the checks required by the Scheme and the possible sanctions for letting to irregular immigrants, landlords engage in direct discrimination on grounds of nationality; and section 33 and the Discrimination Code of Practice clearly recognise and seek to address that discrimination by landlords."
In short, the Court of Appeal agreed that the Right to Rent scheme causes discrimination but did not rule that that discrimination amounted to a human rights violation, because it is indirect, and only “some landlords” may participate in it. The court leaves it to the government to decide whether the racial discrimination is “greater than envisaged”.
To advocates and immigration lawyers, it is clear that whatever was envisaged, any amount of racial discrimination is unacceptable. The Home Office’s own research has shown that 25% of landlords would not be willing to rent to anyone without a British passport, whilst the Residential Landlords Association found that more than half of landlords were less likely to rent to those with limited time to remain in the UK. Effectively, the Right to Rent scheme turns landlords into border patrol, as they are forced to evaluate who does and does not have the right to be in the country. Needless to say, landlords are not properly trained or qualified to do so.
Chai Patel, the JCWI’s legal policy director, said that, “At a time when our lives depend on our ability to stay at home safely, ethnic minorities and foreign nationals are being forced by the government to face discrimination in finding a safe place for them and their families to live.” The JCWI has said that they are planning to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, the policy is still in place, and the people affected by it remain at risk.
You can support JCWI's work by donating here.
In the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) statistics produced by the Home Office on a monthly and quarterly basis, refusals are contained within the statistics for what is known as “other outcomes”. This means that refusals constitute EUSS decisions that do not result in either a grant of indefinite leave to remain (settled status), or limited leave to remain (pre-settled status). It is important to understand the other outcomes that can occur under the EUSS as this will dictate what action, an applicant should take. The types of outcomes that can occur are the following:
- Invalid Application
- Withdrawn or Void outcome
- Refusal to grant EUSS status
- Grant of pre-settled status not settled status (note this is not recorded as another outcome in the Home Office EUSS statistics. It is not recorded as a decision at all as the HO only reports grants of status)
The most recent set of Home Office statistics, which cover the lifetime of the EUSS to the end of March 2020, state (to the nearest 100) there have been 10,000 invalid applications, 23,900 void or withdrawn outcomes, and 600 refusals. These “other outcomes” have been expanded on below with an explanation of why a person would receive this outcome and what, if anything, they can do about it if they disagree with the outcome.
For someone who wishes to be granted status under the EU settlement scheme, the first hurdle to jump is to have your application considered as valid. Appendix EU of the Immigration Rules tells what you must to do to make a valid application:
EU9. A valid application has been made under this Appendix where: (a) It has been made using the required application process; (b) The required proof of identity and nationality has been provided, where the application is made within the UK; (c) The required proof of entitlement to apply from outside the UK has been provided, where the application is made outside the UK; and (d) The required biometrics have been provided.
The required application process means either using the online application form unless you are applying in a category that requires a mandatory paper application form (applications involving derivative rights, ‘Surinder Singh’ and ‘Lounes’ cases or, where the applicant has no valid ID document), or you have convinced the Home Office that you should be allowed to a use a paper application form because you are not able to use, or do not have access to the IT needed to complete the online form. You will not be able to apply to the EUSS via any other route.
The required proof of identity and nationality means having a valid passport or ID card if you are an EEA/Swiss citizen. If you are a non-EEA/Swiss family member applicant, it means using a valid passport, a valid biometric resident card issued under the EEA Regulations or, a valid biometric resident permit in an immigration category. There is a caveat to providing a valid document in this list which, is the Home Office can allow alternative evidence of identity and nationality due to circumstances beyond the applicants control or, because of compelling practical or compassionate reasons. The required biometrics means a photograph of the applicant for all applications and in the case of non-EEA/Swiss applicants, fingerprints unless they hold a valid biometric residence card issued under the EEA Regulations or under Appendix EU (for applicants holding pre-settled status and making a settled status application).
Failure to complete these steps means that your EUSS application will not be validated. In other words, there is no consideration as to whether you are entitled to be granted EUSS status (consideration of your eligibility or suitability for status), because you never reach this stage of the process. The way to know that you have completed the validation process is that you receive a certificate of application from the Home Office; this is a PDF or physical letter (in cases where a paper form is submitted), that confirms a valid application has been made. Unless you have received this letter, you have not made a valid application and therefore will not receive a decision on whether you are eligible for a grant of EUSS status. It is therefore extremely important that you receive the certificate of application and if you do not, you should investigate with the Settlement Resolution Centre, what part of the validation process remains outstanding. An application that is not validated will eventually be declared invalid and removed from the Home Office system. If this situation arises then generally the only thing to do will be to reapply to the EUSS rectifying the reason why the application was declared invalid.
Withdrawn or Void applications
An applicant can choose to withdraw their application themselves by notifying the Home Office through the Settlement Resolution Centre. For a valid application, the request to withdraw can be made anytime between the submission date and before a decision is made. A request to withdraw is made either using the online Settlement Resolution Centre contact form or by writing to the Home Office in Liverpool. It should be noted that the Home Office is not obliged to withdraw an application if there is reason to believe that it would be refused were it to be fully processed.
A void outcome is where a British citizen, or a person who is exempted from immigration control, attempts obtain immigration status under the EUSS. As these two categories of persons cannot hold immigration status, their attempt to obtain status through the application process is considered void. For British citizens this is an uncontroversial outcome, however, it is not always a straightforward assessment as to whether someone is immigration exempt (there is separate Home Office guidance on who is considered exempt). Exemption from immigration control is based on a person’s circumstances and will generally be temporary. This means that once a person is not exempt from immigration control, they will require immigration status if they wish to remain residing in the UK lawfully. The Home Office has answered when questioned on this point that, for a person who is eligible for status under the EUSS, but for the fact they are presently exempt from immigration control, they will be able to apply to the EUSS in the future – and crucially beyond the 30 June 2021 deadline – at the point when their circumstances change and they are no longer exempt.
The EUSS statistics define a refusal outcome where a valid application results in no grant of immigration status. Appendix EU provides two reasons to refuse an application, firstly on a suitability basis (that a person’s character or conduct makes them unsuitable to be granted status), or, secondly on an eligibility basis (that they have failed to demonstrate that they are eligible for a grant of status). Within the latter category, you can break down the failure to demonstrate eligibility in two:
- failure to show UK residence eligibly and / or;
- failure for a non-EEA/Swiss applicant to show eligibility through a qualifying family relationship (either in the present or in the past)
(a) Eligibility refusals and the burden of proof
It is important to remember that in a constitutive application system, it is incumbent on the applicant not just to be eligible based on their circumstances but, to be able prove with evidence that they are eligible for a grant of status. This means, in most cases something that is claimed by an applicant which goes to the heart of their eligibility under the EUSS, must be proved by the evidence they provide. For example, evidence that the applicant is a UK resident before the end of the transition period (such as a utility bill or bank statement) or, proof that a non-EEA/Swiss family member is related to an EEA/Swiss citizen or qualifying British citizen (a marriage certificate for example). For those applying under the dependent relative and durable partner family relationships, the applicant must apply with a document that has been issued under the EEA (European Economic Area) Regulations otherwise the application will automatically be refused on eligibility grounds.
The burden of proof in civil cases is “the balance of probabilities” which means that the evidence shows that something claimed is more probable than not to be true (in other words more than 50/50 to be true). The Home Office has stated that in respect of the eligibility refusals that begun from February 2020 onwards, multiple attempts (sometimes more than 20), were made to contact applicants and request the evidence from them that would show that they eligible for a grant of status. In other words, it was the applicants’ failures to provide evidence in spite of these requests that meant that the burden of proof had not been met with the refusal decision following. Without understanding more about the grounds that the refusal decisions were made, it is impossible to know whether the outcomes were correct or not. These cases do though show the importance of ensuring contact information given to the Home Office in the application is correct and from the Home Office side, ensuring that every effort is made to contact applicants when issues arise.
After the end of the grace period for EUSS applications (currently the grace period ends on 30 June 2021), there will start to be eligibility refusals where a holder of pre-settled status, cannot prove that they have been continually resident in the UK for the 5 years normally required to be granted settled status. There are some questions that remain about this situation however, the working assumption is that after the end of the grace period, an EUSS applicant who holds pre-settled status cannot be granted a second period of pre-settled status. This means that a pre-settled status holder has to be able to prove their eligibility for settled status otherwise, they will be refused status outright.
(b) Refusals based on suitability
Before February 2020, there had been seven refusals of EUSS status because the applicants failed the suitability assessment required under Appendix EU. The Home Office states the suitability criteria is generally met where the applicant has demonstrated in their application:
- they are not subject to a deportation order/decision or an exclusion order/decision
- they have not breached the relevant thresholds for serious or persistent criminality
- they have not submitted false or misleading information or documentation in their application
Since the Home Office began refusing applications on eligibility grounds, the statistics provide a percentage of which applications are refused on suitability and which are refused on eligibility. The balance in the March 2020 statistics report says, “of the total refusals, 98% were refused on eligibility grounds and 2% were refused on suitability grounds”. Although the 600 refusals are a figure rounded to the nearest 100, 2% refused on suitability grounds equates to approximately 12 suitability refusals with the remainder being made on eligibility grounds.
(c) Paper application refusals
The March EUSS statics included for a statement on EUSS applications made using a paper form:
“Applications made using a paper form are captured and processed using a separate caseworking system once they have been received. At present, paper-based applications are not included in the published statistics. This means that the total number of applications received, grants of status, and other outcomes (refusals, withdrawn or void, or invalid cases) are not fully captured in the report. The Home Office is currently developing electronic integration of the two systems with information on paper applications due to be included in the next detailed quarterly EUSS statistics release in May 2020”
As the mandatory paper application process is generally reserved for more complex EUSS categories (the categories are set out above), it would be a reasonable assumption that the quarterly EUSS statistics will contain more refusal decisions based on eligibility grounds.
(d) Challenging a refusal decision
There are a number of ways in which to challenge EUSS refusal decisions, which option is available and most advisable will depend on the date of application and whether the refusal is based on suitability or eligibility. Generally, for a suitability refusal the only way to challenge the outcome will be to appeal to the Immigration Tribunal. The reason for this is because a deportation or exclusion decision results in a mandatory refusal of EUSS status and so, this decision must be overturned first in order for the applicant to be granted EUSS status. Repeated attempts to make fresh applications to the EUSS whilst a deportation or exclusion is in place will simply result in repeated refusals on suitability grounds.
With a refusal on eligibility grounds, there are three possible avenues of redress:
i) Appeal to the Immigration Tribunal (for applications made after 31 January 2020)
ii) Apply for Administrative Review of the refusal decision
iii) Make a fresh EUSS application (as long as this is done before 30 June 2021)
Which approach is best to take will be down to the individual circumstances of the applicant (noting that an Immigration Appeal is only available for recent applications). The Home Office decision will set out in writing the reason(s) why the applicant has failed to meet the eligibility requirements and it may require a lawyer’s input as to the best way to address the decision. For example, if the refusal was based on a lack of evidence and new evidence has since become available, it may be best to lodge a fresh application with the new evidence. If however, there is no new evidence available, it may be that the best approach will be to appeal to the Immigration Tribunal so an Immigration Judge can decide whether the balance of probabilities has been satisfied, based on what evidence was submitted to the Home Office. For refusal decisions where the applicant needs to argue that Appendix EU is in breach of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement, the only really option is likely to be an appeal to the Immigration Tribunal which has power to look outside of the wording of Appendix EU to determine if a person’s rights under the Withdrawal Agreement have been infringed. By comparison, an Administrative Review (or a fresh application), only looks at whether the decision was correct based on the wording of the Immigration Rules and accompanying caseworker guidance.
Pre-settled status not settled status
What is not included in the Home Office statistics is the outcome where an applicant believes that they should be granted settled status but instead, receive pre-settled status. The only reason this outcome can occur is where the Home Office says that there is not enough evidence to demonstrate that a person has resided in the UK for 5 years or more (unless they are applying in the category of “ceased activity” or as a child under 21 years linked to a sponsoring parent). A reason why these cases are not recorded as a refusal in the statistics is because an application to the EUSS is for either available immigration status, not specifically for pre-settled status or settled status.
Therefore, a grant of pre-settled status rather than settled status does not constitute a refusal in the mind of the Home Office. Someone who receives the incorrect status would probably argue that the HO recording they have been granted pre-settled status, rather than acknowledging the refusal of settled status to reach the pre-settled status outcome, is a question of semantics. There is no way to know how many people have experienced this outcome, as the EUSS application process only relatively recently started to ask applicants if they have resided in the UK for more than 5 years at the point when they apply. For those who feel that they should have received settled status instead of pre-settled status, refer to the section on challenging a refusal decision relating to eligibility refusals as the same methods of redress equally apply to this outcome.
Whilst we remain in the transition period, and even once we move into the grace period, for most other outcomes under the EUSS (suitability refusals being the exception), most applicants who need to do so – remembering that void outcomes do not need or cannot have, EUSS status - will be able to “have another go” with the EUSS. By this we mean, even an applicant with an outright refusal on eligibility grounds can submit a fresh application if they have the evidence to overcome the refusal ground. That is not to say that any refusal can be overcome as there will be cases where eligibility evidence cannot be obtained; for those who receive a refusal it is important to seek legal advice from a firm such as ours to understand the basis of the refusal and the best way to approach any challenge. For those whose applications are invalidated, it is extremely important that they make a valid application before the deadline to apply to ensure their lawful residence in the UK. The concern is, of the 10,000 invalid applications, how many applicants do not realise that their application was invalidated and think that they have successfully applied and received EUSS status? And finally, for those who have lived here for 5 years or more and feel they wrong were granted pre-settled status rather than settled status, we would encourage you to apply again to show that you are entitled to settled status; it is a superior immigration status and does impact on other important rights.
As the UK prepares to end free movement, EU citizens already living in the UK have to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) if they want to maintain their residency rights. Whoever fails to apply by the deadline (currently set at 30 June 2021), loses their legal status in the UK, and becomes an unlawful or irregular migrant. The government has therefore invested significant efforts into creating a Scheme that is inclusive and easy to use for all applicants.
However, as we have argued before, no system is perfect, and there are significant challenges for certain groups of people who need to apply under the EUSS. The Migrant Observatory published a report confirming many lawyers and advocates worries for EU citizens’ rights. We take a look at their findings.
A key question to understand the Settlement Scheme is how many eligible people have already applied, and how many are left to apply. But the exact number of people currently living in the UK and eligible to apply to the EUSS is unknown, and estimates of the number of EU citizens living in the UK have significant limitations. Unlike in other European countries, there is no registration system or population register in the UK, and as such, the government does not know which UK residents are EU citizens. EU citizens will thus need to come forward of their own accord under the EUSS, as there is no way to track them. Additionally, the number of successful applications under the Scheme does not reflect the number of current UK residents, as some people may get their status and then leave the UK, and some applications are counted twice. It does not help that the Office of National Statistics measures the number of EU citizens living in the UK differently from how the Home Office assesses the applications and grants under the EUSS.
Equally hard to interpret is the data on whether applicants are being granted the right status, i.e. are receiving settled status when they have been living in the UK for more than 5 years, and pre-settled status if they have been in the UK for less than 5 years. If this is not the case, and people who in theory are entitled to settled status receive pre-settled status because they do not have enough evidence of living in the UK for the whole required five-year period, their future rights might be in danger. If we don’t know whether people are receiving the right status now, we will not be able to determine whether people with pre-settled status later manage to upgrade their status to settled status. The process of upgrading from pre-settled status to settled status could bring many complications.
Firstly, individuals do not always understand their immigration status. As such, applicants who receive pre-settled status may not understand that that status is temporary, and that they need to apply separately to obtain settled status further down the line. Secondly, unlike the initial EUSS application, there will not be a single deadline for people to upgrade to settled status. Instead, there will be many different deadlines depending on when the person made their initial application. This complicates the public communication around the need to apply. Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, the evidence required for settled status is more extensive than for pre-settled status. As such, the report highlights that applicants who are not covered by the automated checks and lack the necessary paperwork to prove their residence can currently receive pre-settled status with just one piece of evidence, such as a single invoice issued in the past six months; however, once the main EUSS deadlines have passed, applicants will need a full five years of evidence retrospectively to qualify for settled status.
The report also highlights the lack of data on applicants’ experience of the scheme. To encourage EU citizens to apply, the government has developed an application process that is designed to be easy to use, launched an advertising campaign and grants to community organisations to support vulnerable EU citizens. However, this is not enough, as we still do not have detailed information on waiting times, reasons for pending applications, administrative review procedures, or reasons for not granting status.
In order to understand the EUSS statistics better, as well as understand its shortcomings, and improve it in the future, The Migration Observatory states that data collection needs to change. The focus should shift from successful applications to the people who have not yet applied, and on how to reach them so that they can acquire the right status. Finally, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, future challenges to the EUSS are unavoidable, as the outbreak disrupts EUSS assistance services, hinders data collection, and causes increased absences from the UK which may well impede EU citizens from reaching the EUSS residence requirements. There are many gaps in the evidence base about the EU Settlement Scheme, and unfortunately, the consequences of those failings will not become clear until many months or years from now. This is the unfortunate consequence of choosing a constitutive system over a declaratory one.
Every day, at 8PM, millions of people across the country clap for our healthcare workers, an initiative which has been encouraged by the government. Meanwhile, as coronavirus numbers soar to almost a thousand deaths a day in the UK, the Home Office published updated guidance for employers on navigating working visas once the new points-based immigration system comes into force on 1 January 2021. Whilst encouraging signs of solidarity, the government is thus detailing the ins and outs of an immigration system which will likely stop many of the people we clap for from coming to work in the UK once it becomes law.
The new guidance lays out that all workers will have to be sufficiently qualified (at the minimum, they must have A-level equivalence) and speak sufficient English in order to get a visa. Highly skilled workers are the only ones who can come to the UK without a job offer. In order to do so, they need to get an endorsement from a relevant competent body in order to obtain a Global Talent Visa.
Any other individual who wants to come work in the UK will need to have a job offer from an approved sponsor. To become an approved sponsor, employers who want to recruit migrant workers will need to take active steps. They will have to check that their business is eligible, and choose which type of workers they are looking to hire: skilled workers with long-term job offers, or temporary workers. Employers will then have to put in place a framework within their business to deal with the sponsorship process, apply online and pay an application fee ranging from £536 to £1,476, depending on the type of business. The whole process usually takes about 8 weeks. Once they become an approved sponsor, they can recruit people without UK residency to fill their job openings.
If an individual, then, receives a job offer from an approved sponsor, they will need to meet a minimum income threshold on top of the language and skill requirements. The general minimum salary threshold is set at £25,600. For some jobs, the threshold may be higher, if the Home Office estimates that it is a higher paid occupation.
If an individual does not meet the income threshold, they may still be eligible for a visa if they can demonstrate that they have a job offer in a specific shortage occupation or a PhD relevant to the job. For these occupations, the income threshold is lowered to £20,480. The list of shortage occupations, which includes doctors and nurses, is published by the Migrant Advisory Committee.
Concerning lower-skilled workers, the guidance explicitly reiterates that “there will NOT be an immigration route specifically for those who do not meet the skills or salary threshold for the skilled worker route.” The skill level for different jobs can be found in Appendix J of the Immigration Rules.
Considering that the average health care worker in the UK makes £19,080 a year, the timing of this publication seems peculiar to say the least. As our Director suggests, how does it make sense for the Home Office state that care workers, nurses, hospital porters, cleaners, logistics personnel, postal workers, etc. will not be able to apply for visa under the new immigration system in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis? It is hard to imagine that the Home Office has a valid reason for needlessly doubling down on an immigration policy which fails to take care of the workers who, in times of crisis, put everything at risk to take care of us.
Over 3.6million Syrian refugees made Turkey their home since civil war tore their country apart in the 2010s. Polls show that most of the Turkish population want them to leave. On February 28th, President Erdogan announced that his government would heed that request, and Turkey would no longer stop refugees from crossing over to Greece.
Mr. Erdogan’s promise of free passage to Europe led tens of thousands of migrants to leave Turkey and resume their journey to Europe. What the President failed to mention was that on the European side of state lines, borders would remain closed.
The current political impasse originates from the 2015 refugee crisis, when over 1 million migrants entered Europe from Turkey. In an attempt to stop the influx, the EU struck a deal with Mr. Erdogan. As part of that deal, the EU gave Turkey over 6.0 billion euros in aid. In exchange, Turkey promised to keep the refugees inside their borders and prevent them from migrating to Europe through Greece. When Turkey ran out of aid last year, Mr. Erdogan requested more funding to keep up his end of the bargain, but the two parties failed to reach an agreement.
In response to the arrival of so many people, Greece doubled down on their border security. The government sent riot police, armoured vehicles and 1000 soldiers to the Turkish border, and suspended the right to apply for asylum for a month. Greek authorities as well as rogue actors detained, assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, and then forced them back to Turkey. Tens of thousands of people now find themselves in limbo between borders.
Greece, like all EU countries, is bound by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter recognises the right to seek asylum and guarantees protection from forcible return of anyone at real risk of persecution or other serious harm. Greece’s suspension of the right to claim asylum, in combination with their appalling treatment of migrants on the border, is a gross violation of human rights.
Yet this violation has received very little scrutiny. As the spread of COVID-19 pushed the images of men being shot, children being hit, and faces behind barbed wire to the back of the news cycle, these breaches of the 1951 UN refugee convention and EU law went unnoticed. Instead, Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, announced the distribution of a £609 million aid package to help and support Greece’s border infrastructure. She called Greece “our European shield”, and praised the country for its tough response, as it has helped avoid another “crisis” like the one in 2015.
Instead of taking collective responsibility, the EU, yet again, has shown lack of leadership on the issue of migration at an astronomical human cost. The only solution to this endless plight remains unchanged from 2015: meaningful change to EU asylum policy allowing for coordinated resettlement and shared responsibility for all EU member states. The UK should be leading the charge, accepting a number for resettlement and providing for safe routes to claim asylum in the UK. Instead, in the midst of a global health crisis, the violence and human suffering at the border persist. We should fight to end it and create an immigration which actually reflects the European discourse of enlightenment and human rights in practice, rather than the dysfunctional and divisive system that is in place now.
The UK is one of many countries that has implemented lockdown measures to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. These measures include strict travel restrictions, and in over 50 countries around the world, they go as far as a complete aerial lockdown.
Immigration detention is only lawful if there is a prospect of imminent removal. With borders closing worldwide and flights suspended, that prospect is non-existent. That is why Detention Action, an NGO which fights for immigration detainees’ rights in the UK, issued judicial review proceedings on 18 March 2020. The proceedings challenged the lawfulness of continued detention, in particular of persons with medical conditions placing them at increased risk from COVID-19.
In response, the Home Office has committed to reviewing all detainees’ case files to release as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, unless they pose a grave danger to the public. When the government began their case-by-case review, one case of COVID-19 had already been confirmed in Yarl’s Wood IRC, two cases had been reported in Brook House, and symptoms were recorded in most other removal centres.
Under the current circumstances, detention centres are at risk of becoming hotbeds of coronavirus spreading, as both detainees and staff are constantly in close contact with each other and amongst themselves. In efforts to prevent the virus from spreading within the centres, some facilities have isolated detainees and barred them from leaving their rooms, effectively turning their bedroom into a prison cell.
Nevertheless, Detention Action lost their case in the High Court, and the Home Office still refuses to systematically release all individuals currently held in detention, putting all individuals involved in this system at continued risk of ill health.
Government action, however, shows awareness that keeping detainees locked up could come back to bite them. Since Detention Action launched their claim, the Home Office released over 350 people held under immigration powers. The courts are also playing their part, as a solicitor from Bail for Immigration Detainees (BiD), a London-based charity, reported that ever since the travel restrictions and lockdown were enforced, 13 of his clients were granted bail and no applications were refused.
This is good news, but it is not enough. People currently held under immigration powers still need to go through the process of applying for bail if they are to be released, a process which has been made significantly more complicated by the pandemic itself.
On 20 March 2020, visits to immigration detention centres were indefinitely suspended as part of measures to contain the virus. This does not only have devastating implications for detainees on a personal level, as they can no longer see their loved ones. It also means that lawyers can no longer visit their clients in immigration removal centres.
Meanwhile, the Tribunal has started holding hearings remotely, but it seems that the courts do not lean itself to the online sphere easily, and their infrastructure is not ready to make the transition. This failure of court proceedings weakens detainees’ access to justice even further, as bail hearings are frustrated by the practicalities of online hearings.
This situation is not sustainable. After calls from Strasbourg and the Council of Europe to release immigration detainees in the face of this crisis, it is time to release everyone currently held under immigration powers, close detention centres and ensure that every individual receives the necessary care and support they need and deserve during these unprecedented times.