Criminalising Solidarity

The government’s latest anti-migrant proposals would criminalise not only asylum seekers, but those who show them solidarity – there’s only one way to fight back: collective action.

Migrants packed tightly onto a small inflatable boat attempt to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait. Credit: Luke Dray / Getty Images

On 19 August 2020 a young Sudanese man, Abdulfatah Hamdallah, drowned in the English Channel while attempting to paddle a dinghy across to Britain from France. Nearly a year later, after a steady build-up of far-right hysteria about such crossings, figures such as Nigel Farage have turned on charities such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), accusing them of operating a ‘migrant taxi service’ through their rescue operations.

Presumably, Farage et al would rather see bodies wash up on French shores than people land safely on British ones, with such rhetoric forming part of a concerted right-wing shift towards criminalising solidarity and rescue around the shores of Europe. Underpinning these attacks throughout the pandemic has been the Conservative government’s push towards its ‘New Plan for Immigration’, focused into the ‘Nationality and Borders Bill’ currently going through the parliamentary committee stage.

At the heart of the new bill is a separation of categories of people into ‘illegal’ arrivals and those deemed genuine ‘refugees’ on the basis of travelling to the UK through a tiny set of established resettlement routes, having had their immigration status determined in advance. Clearly, when fleeing persecution, war, and conflict, advance applications are rarely an option, particularly for LGBTQ+ people or those with ethnic and political affiliations they are afraid of revealing. The Bill frames its two-tier separation as allowing for the ‘differential treatment of refugees’ based on mode of arrival, leaving lots of room for how this might be implemented in practice, but giving the examples of ‘illegal’ entrants being forced to live long-term in ‘asylum camps’ like the much-criticised Napier Barracks facility in Kent, or ‘offshore processing facilities’ modelled on Australia’s Nauru island.

From here, the government will attempt to remove people to so-called ‘safe countries’ or ‘countries of origin’, despite having very little in the way of international agreement to accept removed persons post-Brexit, and will relegate those who do end up staying to a time-limited ‘temporary protection status’ that denies them access to public funds. Furthermore, the Bill re-brands ‘Illegal entry’ as an offence attracting a maximum four-year prison sentence. As the Barrister Colin Yeo points out in his interpretation of the Bill:

It looks like any asylum seeker knowingly arriving without entry clearance or entering the UK without permission (“leave”) to enter will have committed an offence. If this reformed offence is actually enforced and prosecuted (unlike the overstayer offence, for example) it looks like we are talking about thousands of additional convictions every year and a significant growth in the prison population.

As such, the Bill seeks to end the right to seek asylum in the UK in its current form, and will clearly lead to a lot of misery and uncertainty for people who try to do so, along with protracted litigation from those representing them. Alongside this, the Bill has removed previous stipulations that facilitating ‘the arrival or attempted arrival’ of an asylum seeker to the UK needs to be ‘for gain’ in order to be criminally liable – opening the possibility for prosecuting individuals working for charities such as the RNLI.

While it’s tempting to shrug off such an idea in the case of a well-known charity as the RNLI, it’s important to remember that other European states have prosecuted people helping migrants in transit, including the famous cases of the French farmer Cédric Herrou, the Lesvos volunteers Seán Binder and Sarah Mardini, and what a ReSoma report says are around 171 similar cases of criminalised solidarity in the last few years. The Nationality and Borders Bill is also being introduced alongside the already notorious Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the somewhat less scrutinised Judicial Review and Courts Bill, both of which seek to extend the criminalising capacity of the state, silence dissent, and quash access to justice.

Already, migrants who are accused of ‘people smuggling’ for piloting or steering boats across the channel have faced prison sentences of up to fourteen years, with the Crown Prosecution Service having to step in last month to say such cases ‘will no longer be prosecuted’ on such terms. While the Labour Party has opposed the Nationality and Borders Bill in Parliament, its public rhetoric has repeated Tory attack lines about a ‘broken’ asylum system and ‘criminal gangs’ that feed such blurry and punitive notions of ‘smuggling’, instead of questioning the logic of the border regime.

Other opponents to the Bill have taken a more proactive approach, with Migrants Organise launching a ‘Fair Immigration Charter’, Uyghur Solidarity UK organising a demonstration against the Bill in London last month, and lawyers taking legal action against the ‘sham’ public consultation that preceded the Bill. In Glasgow, a group of organisations including the No Evictions Network, Zagros Community, and newly formed Equal Society Movement initiated a series of actions across the city with a protest in the town centre two weeks ago.

I spoke on the phone to Savan Neilson, an activist involved in all three groups, about the plan behind the mobilisation. ‘This new immigration bill is a way to turn our back on the most vulnerable, to turn our back on a global issue,’ he said. ‘The Bill is totally irresponsible. It ignores why people might come to the UK; because they speak English, they might have relatives in the UK, or they come from countries that the British Empire colonised. It ignores these historic events and it wants to put people in these concentration camps like Napier or Nauru island. It is a shocking rejection of the 1951 Refugee Convention and an attempt to redefine who is human and who is not.’

Like many, Savan is unsure of the workability of the bill. ‘To implement this, the government obviously need international cooperation, but it’s very unlikely they’ll get this since we’re not the EU anymore. Why would other countries come to an agreement on this?’

But such questions do not undermine the impact he believes the legislation could have. ‘I think the Bill is part of a shift to a authoritarian state, this Bill and the other linked ones,’ he explains. ‘We need to let people know that that the Tories do not stand for human rights, and that this is not just about immigration. They are attacking everything: protest rights, foreign aid, democracy.

‘We can raise awareness in public, in the streets,’ he continues, speaking about a recent rally he helped organise in Glasgow. ‘Next we will be going to Scottish Parliament and trying to push the politicians there to be more vocal about opposing this bill.’

Migrant-led grassroots action will be key to opposing the draconian and punitive raft of new legislation currently being pushed through Parliament by the Tories. Simultaneously, campaigners across the UK are focusing on making links to groups working internationally on rescue at sea, solidarity cities, and fighting the EU border management agency Frontex. Building the struggle across these different scales involves holding onto the principle that ‘no one is illegal’, while contending with governments that are pushing people into growing forms of illegality and danger.