The UK Nationality and Borders Bill puts Afghans fleeing the Taliban at risk of being criminalized, warned UN representative for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor.
Ms Pagliuchi-Lor said: “There is something ironic in the way we are so concerned about them [the Afghan refugees] while they are there, but we are ready not to consider them when they come to the UK.”
This rings true even as the Home Office unveiled details of their much-anticipated resettlement scheme for Afghan refugees. Under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), the government has committed to welcome 5000 people fleeing Afghanistan in its first year of operation, working up to 20 000 places over the next few years. During the height of conflict in 2014-2015, the government resettled a similar amount of Syrian refugees. Compared to the amount of people needing protection, it is almost negligible.
The Home Office purports to give Afghans a “warm welcome” in the UK. The ACRS is meant to provide that, together with the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) protecting Afghans who assisted the UK government in its Afghan operations.
Both schemes are not only limited in their applicability and strict on eligibility, but also fail to prepare the lucky few who manage to qualify for the hostile immigration system in place once they reach the UK. Lack of housing for refugees, slow and complicated administrative processes, and difficulty accessing public funds are just a few of the challenges that lay ahead.
As for those who do not qualify and find their way to the island through other means, a controversial two-tier asylum system which criminalises their means of travel may be awaiting them. The two-tiered asylum system, proposed in the Nationality and Borders Bill differentiates between those who come to the UK through official ways (e.g. through resettlement or family reunion visas) and those who make their way here through more illicit ways. The Bill has been criticised much before on this blog, in the press and internationally. In May 2021, the UNHCR called the two-tiered approach to asylum applications discriminatory and in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The UN Representative for the UNHCR confirmed that the Bill could criminalise Afghan refugees trying to escape the Taliban if they travel by illegal routes. If the Bill becomes law, anyone entering the UK by an unlawful route (e.g. small boat crossings) could be barred from applying for asylum ever again. They would not have access to public funds, be disqualified from having their family members joining them, and be at risk of a jail sentence of up to four years.
Resources for those affected by the crisis in Afghanistan are available on the Refugee Council website.
On 01 December 2020, the Home Office amended the Immigration rules to include a new discretionary refusal or status cancellation ground where a person is deemed to be rough sleeper. The newly issued guidance clarifies key points in respect of how the guidance should operate:
- The rule was amended on 6 April 2021 to clarify that permission may only be refused or cancelled where a person has repeatedly refused suitable offers of support and engaged in persistent anti-social behaviour.
- Rough sleeping means sleeping, or bedding down, in the open air (for example on the street, in doorways or parks) or in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (for example stairwells, sheds, car parks, stations, or tents).
It should be noted that the policy explicitly states that it should not be applied to EEA/Swiss citizens and family members who have been granted status under the EUSS. However, the policy will apply to EU citizens who come to the UK under the new immigration system. With respect of the EUSS, the guidance confirms that anyone with status under the scheme should not have their status considered for cancellation on the basis of rough sleeping. The policy also confirms that there may be EU citizens who have not applied to the EUSS before 30 June 2021 deadline and confirms that they would be eligible to apply late to the scheme, if they have good reason for missing the deadline. Unfortunately, the guidance does not direct members of Immigration Enforcement teams to signpost and assist rough sleeping EU citizens to apply to the EUSS (by contrast the EUSS caseworker guidance contains explicit instructions for Immigration Enforcement when they encounter EU citizens who have not applied to the EUSS by 30 June 2021; it would be beneficial for these instructions to be repeated in the guidance on rough sleepers).
This Home Office policy is controversial as some organisations consider this to be targeting migrants already in highly vulnerable situations. Comparison is made to a previous unlawful Home Office policy to remove homeless EEA citizens and there is a legal challenge against the policy in motion.
If you need legal assistance, or have any other questions, you can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211, or send us a question on WhatsApp.
Appendix FM of the immigration rules sets out the rules for non-EU citizens who want to come and join previously settled family members in the UK. Those eligible to apply for family visas under Appendix FM are non-EEA nationals related to or in a relationship with either a British citizen, a person settled in the UK with indefinite leave to remain, or a person in the UK with limited leave as a refugee or someone granted humanitarian protection.
The Appendix states that it aims to “strike a balance between the right to respect for private and family life and the legitimate aims of protecting national security, public safety and the economic well-being of the UK; the prevention of disorder and crime; the protection of health or morals; and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
In practice, striking the “balance” between what is essentially an inalienable human right under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights and national or domestic conditions of life has led to strict rules and requirements for applicants trying to join their family.
Basic requirements for eligibility depend on the applicant’s relationship to the family member they are trying to join in the UK, and are often related to age, knowledge of English and self-sufficiency. More complicated, and often problematic, is the Minimum Income Requirement (MIR), which was introduced together with the 2012 hostile environment rules by then Home Secretary Theresa May. Under the Minimum Income requirement, the British or settled family member who wants to reunite with their non-EEA national family member has to prove that they can financially support themselves, the family member, and any dependent children where applicable.
Concretely, the British or settled sponsor needs to show a proof of income of £18,600, with an increase of £3,800 where they are applying with one dependent child, and an extra £2,400 for each additional child after that. This is in addition to the cost of the Home Office visa application process and English Language test fees which applicants have to incur independently, and which are amongst the highest in the world.
Bearing in mind that 40% of workers in the UK do not reach this threshold, the minimum income requirement has often been criticised as unduly harsh on family units. Today, at least 15,000 children are growing up without one of their parents, just because their family doesn't earn enough to meet these strict Home Office income rules.
The Appendix is also the framework under which a British or settled person can bring their spouse or partner into the UK. For partner applications, additional non-financial requirements, which are not required for blood-related family members, can be tricky. Primarily, the requirement to prove that the relationship is “genuine and subsisting” can be hard to fulfil, and often is at the base of reasons given for refused applications.
Granted, Appendix FM makes provision for “exceptional circumstances” under which an applicant may be relieved of the Minimum Income Threshold, or where the Home Office will approach “genuineness” of the relationship with more flexibility. For the MIR, examples include if a strict application of the rules will result in unjustifiably harsh consequences, and thereby render refusal of entry clearance or leave to remain a breach of Article 8. In those scenarios, the Home Office will not only take other income sources such as cash savings into account to see if an applicant can reach the threshold alternatively, but they may also exercise discretion in granting the family visa if the money is not readily available. Unsurprisingly, the threshold to qualify for these “exceptional circumstances” is extremely high, and the execution is at the Home Office’s mercy.
Not only is there no motive – political, economical or humanitarian - that justifies the minimum income threshold, it has also still not been proven that the hostile environment policy works at all. As Reunite Families UK, a charity fighting the unfairness of the minimum income requirement, writes in their open letter to the PM the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the policy’s harmful effects, and the upcoming recession will only make things worse. Write to your MP today to fix this broken system, and reunite families that have been teared up for years for no other reason than purely financial distress.
You can contact us here, call us on 020 8142 8211 or send us a question on WhatsApp if you need help reuniting your family.
According to a report published in 2019 the number of self-harm incidents in Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) has tripled since 2016. In 2015, 393 suicide attempts were reported in UK immigration detention centres. That same year, 2957 people in detention were put on suicide watch. In 2018, more than one person a day needed medical treatment for self-harming in detention, with the number of detainees on regular suicide watch still on the rise. Yet, the risk of suicide in detention is barely on the Home Office agenda.
In 2016, the Home Office called upon Stephen Shaw, former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, to use his expertise and write a review on the welfare of vulnerable persons in detention. As a former government employee himself, he openly criticised some of the most irrational aspects of the Home Office’s policy towards vulnerable detainees.
In his report, Shaw highlighted some of the issues with the UK handling of Foreign National Offenders. These are the people who, once they finish their custodial sentence and are released from prison, often get stuck in detention for the longest periods of time. These are also the people who the Home Office have insisted on keeping in detention during the nine-week long (and counting) COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, even though there has not been a realistic prospect of removal for months as planes were grounded all over the globe.
It is therefore on Foreign National Offenders that the effects of detention often weigh the most. Case in point is Michal Netyks, 35, who jumped from a first-floor window in HMP Altcourse in Liverpool on 7 December 2017. He had been due to be released from prison, having just completed his short criminal sentence. An inquiry found that Mr. Netyks had packed up his belongings and was waiting for his release when he was informed that he would continue to be detained under immigration powers pending possible deportation to Poland. He took his own life that very same day.
The Coroner’s report outlined numerous concerns with this practice, echoed in Shaw’s report. By de facto depriving ex-prisoners of their liberty indefinitely beyond their custodial release date, the Home Office shatters any hope and expectation of rebuilding and rehabilitating after a criminal offence. This is made infinitely worse by not giving prisoners any prior notice that they will be detained upon release from prison. In his review, Shaw wrote that this practice is most detrimental to the detainees’ mental health, fuelling suicidal tendencies and tragedies like Mr. Netyks’. Nevertheless, the Home Office made no changes to its policy; the responsibility for the horrendous consequences of this failure to act rests entirely on the government’s shoulders.
As a response to Shaw’s findings, the Home Office developed a new Adult at Risk policy for people held in detention under immigration powers. This new policy is underpinned by the rule 35 mechanism, which supposedly ensures that potential vulnerable adults are examined by a medical practitioner and that their detention is only maintained when there is absolutely no other option.
But the numbers tell us otherwise. In 2018, an average of two suicide attempts a day happened in UK detention centres. 56% of these attempts were committed by individuals who had a rule 35 report and were recognised vulnerable adults. Clearly, the rule 35 regime is not effective, despite the Home Office’s continued argument that they do everything in their power to flag up potential concerns about detainees’ suicidal tendencies.
Shaw also raised concerns about the concealment and coverups of deaths in detention. Generally, when someone dies in an IRC, the Home Office does not conform to the Ministry of Justice’s practice of publishing data on deaths of immigration detainees who passed away under Home Office supervision. That is why numbers and explanations are elusive, and thus, exacerbations of harm even harder to prevent. In Mr. Netyks’ case, the Coroner’s report found that files had actively been deleted and redacted by senior management, an alarming example of how non-transparent the Home Office is regarding death in detention.
Between 2000 and 2015, at least thirteen people committed suicide in detention. This accounts for 36% of the deaths that happened in detention in that same period of time. The high rate of self-inflicted deaths reflects the high rates of mental despair among immigration detainees caught in a system which is difficult to understand, and seems arbitrary and unfair. To prevent these horrible and inhumane results, it is not a question of improving the management of vulnerable people. Rather, the Home Office should ensure that they are not put in detention in the first please so as to avoid unnecessary and inhumane deaths and trauma.
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.