Maryam Nuri was among the scores of Iraqi and other migrants and refugees who drowned when their dinghy deflated as they tried to cross the English Channel last December. The tragedy culminated a long and perilous journey through Europe where they routinely faced abuse, violence, and intimidation.
The young woman was making a desperate attempt to cross the treacherous waterway from France after the British authorities repeatedly declined to issue her a visa to join her fiancé, a Kurdish Iraqi who has been living in England for the past 14 years.
Asylum-seekers trying to cross the 25 km channel have been facing dire conditions in their attempts, with many drowning en route and others being rescued just minutes from death. Some have made it to the UK only to end up in detention centres for assessment.
Nuri’s death is just one of the many tragedies that have taken place among the thousands of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, who have fled persecution and economic difficulties seeking a better life in Europe.
While such calamities underscore how refugee crises around the world continue to be a major concern, they also highlight racism and double standards in the immigration and asylum policies used by many Western countries, including visa restrictions.
Yet, despite the tragic end of her traumatic odyssey, some might find solace in Nuri’s death, which might have spared her the humiliation and cruelty of being sent to a detention camp away from home and the new life she had sought.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday announced a plan to send some asylum-seekers arriving in Britain to Rwanda in an attempt to crack down on refugee movement to the UK, part of a draconian nationality and borders bill under discussion in the UK parliament.
Johnson suggested that “tens of thousands” of migrants, including the survivors of torture and trafficking, could be sent to Rwanda, in effect forcibly removed from Britain by being given a one-way ticket to what amounts to a detention centre in the central African nation.
The plan stipulates that any adult who comes to the UK without authorisation via “irregular” routes could be considered for relocation to Rwanda after an assessment of his or her asylum claim as well as the way they arrived in the UK.
The plan does not specify any statutory right to appeal, though the British media reported that once someone is told they are going to be removed, they are given five days’ notice and are able to make representations during that period.
Johnson said the agreement is “uncapped” and that Rwanda will have the “capacity to resettle tens of thousands of people in the years ahead.” But officials believe it will take weeks, if not months, for the scheme to begin sending people to Rwanda.
Some of the ugly details of the British government’s move can be seen in the provisions of the £120 million deal that it has signed with Rwanda and that outsources the UK’s refugee responsibilities to the African nation.
According to a memorandum of understanding, once placed on a plane, the refugees would be the responsibility of the Rwandan government, and once they arrive in Rwanda they would be subject to Rwandan immigration rules and would not be expected to be sent back to the UK.
The asylum-seekers sent to Rwanda will stay in a hostel while their claims are processed, and anyone the Rwandan authorities decide to deport can be sent to the first “safe” country or back to their country of origin.
The new plan is contingent on the bill being considered in the UK parliament that would overhaul Britain’s immigration process and could criminalise the act of entering the country without a valid visa or through what the government calls “irregular routes.”
While the plan is expected to be subject to legal challenge as violating UK discrimination legislation and breaching articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, it has also come under fire from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which said it could undermine Britain’s commitment and responsibility to international refugee protection.
The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees says that people have a right to claim asylum in any country and that the country where they do so should examine their claim.
Unions representing British civil servants challenged the government move and warned of mass walk-outs and transfer requests over the ethical and legal implications of the policy. The opposition Labour Party has also condemned the decision as “completely misguided.”
Human-rights lawyers, refugee groups, and the British Red Cross have described the move as “deeply unsettling” and accused the British government of hypocrisy and seeking to deprive the opportunity of freedom to those fleeing oppression.
Some critics said it brings to mind unpleasant memories of the overseas internment of Jewish refugees in World War II. It also exposes the double standard seen in the warm welcome of Ukrainian refugees in Western Europe in sharp contrast to the punitive treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa.
Britain is not the first country to make a deal with Rwanda. Israel has sent Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers to Rwanda under a policy that was eventually abandoned following international and domestic protests.
Australia began using offshore detention centres in 2001 before it hardened its immigration laws to deny resettlement visas to asylum-seekers arriving in the country by boat. It has sent thousands of asylum-seekers to Pacific Island nations Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The Danish government has been in talks with the Rwandan government and held a series of high-profile meetings regarding returning migrants last summer.
The European Union has designated the Greek island of Lesbos as a camp with “controlled entry and exit” to control asylum-seekers coming from Turkey and the Mediterranean. The island camp has been characterised by human-rights organisations as an open-air prison and has become a symbol of Europe’s failed refugee policies.
The British government is now putting its controversial bill to another vote in parliament after it was ripped apart twice by the House of Lords.
The controversy has highlighted the dilemmas of millions of asylum-seekers who have been fleeing the chaos of their homelands while putting into question the legal and ethical grounds of the immigration policies followed by Western nations.
Among the many misgivings surrounding these policies are the carrot-and-stick methods used to force governments in Turkey, the southern Mediterranean region, and Africa to help curb migration.
Under this strategy, the EU focuses on strengthening controls on refugee movement by these governments and pushing them to take back their own citizens deported from Europe.
As their biggest donors and trade and investment partners, maximum diplomatic, political, and economic pressure is used by Western countries to encourage governments in these regions to stop the flow of asylum-seekers to European territories.
Other elements involve tough visa restrictions, as in the case of the Iraqi Kurdish woman who drowned in the channel trying to be reunited with her fiancé, which force asylum-seekers or even legal immigrants to seek trafficking routes instead.
There are still hopes that the plan to send refugees to Rwanda will be torpedoed by the House of Lords, the upper chamber of the UK parliament, where it faces strong resistance. The Lords can at least temporarily overrule the Tory Party-dominated House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament.
The procedure could also be challenged in the British courts on legal grounds, including the government’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and other relevant agreements including the European Convention on Human Rights.
By pushing back people from seeking protection, safety, and dignity on its territory by forcibly removing them to another country without giving them a chance to claim asylum, the British government is clearly abdicating its moral responsibilities.
There is no other way of describing the destinations to which the refugees are planned to be sent except as “concentration camps,” which its British opponents and the world should come together to defeat it.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.