Ever since British and European negotiators resumed talks to negotiate the UK's imminent transition out of the EU, everything from Belgian fishing trawlers to heated disagreements over tariffs have threatened to derail them.
But it is not only fishing rights and trade deals that hang in the balance. It is also the fate of Britain’s recently arrived asylum-seekers, who are being deported in record numbers ahead of the looming Brexit deadline.
Over the past year, more than 8,000 people took to the choppy waters of the English Channel in rubber dinghies. It is more than three times the number of people who undertook a similar journey last year, and 40 times the number of those who did it the year before that. It is, in part, a sign that many are becoming increasingly fed up with conditions in Europe, where it is getting harder for refugees to be granted asylum or reunite with family members.
Many trudge across Europe and pay smugglers thousands of dollars to reach Britain only to be arrested, detained and forced onto chartered deportation flights. The process leading up these flights has been criticised on many occasions by rights groups for failing to secure detainees’ access to lawyers and unnecessarily using waist and leg restraints. While the Home Office, Britain’s interior ministry, claims that such procedures are only used to punish serious criminals, there are plenty of documented cases showing otherwise.
Perhaps most concerning is data obtained from recent Freedom of Information requests, which show that, in recent months, more and more of these flights have been used to deport asylum-seekers back to Europe under an agreement known as the Dublin Regulation. The agreement underpins an EU policy that grants member states the right to send asylum-seekers back to the country in which they were first fingerprinted.
To be clear, while the Dublin Regulation gives member states the right to return asylum-seekers to the European country in which they first arrived, it does not take away the rights of refugees to attempt to reach and claim asylum in another country. Refugees will always have the right under international law to attempt to go somewhere they believe to be safe and ask for asylum. In practice, however, Dublin is a tactic to pressure refugees to stay put in southern Europe. It has also been criticised for overloading southern European states, which are geographically closer to refugees' countries of origin, with a disproportionate number of applications for asylum.
As Brexit approaches, deportation flights from the UK to mainland Europe have tripled in frequency – and the timing is no coincidence. Britain has mere days remaining in which to enjoy the privileges of being an EU member state, and with that the right to deport asylum-seekers back to the continent under the Dublin rules. The clock is ticking, as the UK may no longer be able to take advantage of the Dublin Agreement once its EU membership expires.
The fundamental irony, of course, for those who recall the months leading up to Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, is that Britain’s leaders are keen to leave the EU partly in order to curb the flow of migrants, but are now taking advantage of EU policy to put as many asylum-seekers on planes as possible.
While Brexit’s supporters have used everything from the economy to agriculture to copyright law to argue the case for leaving the EU, it was largely due to right-wing personalities such as Nigel Farage weaponising Europe’s “refugee crisis” to dig into popular anxiety about immigration that Brexit became mainstream. Four years later, Britain is depending on its final days of EU co-operation to enforce a “hostile environment” policy towards migrants.
It may seem natural that the greater influx of asylum-seekers from Europe to the UK this year would result in a higher rate of deportations. But that logic belies the increased haste with which the process has started to move. Lawyers and medical charities have noted that due process that used to take several months has rapidly accelerated, with refugees who arrived in August being deported by October. In many cases, this has hindered their ability to meet with immigration lawyers, who are now in much higher demand. The UK has increased the number of flights, at great taxpayer expense, to the point where some have had only one asylum-seeker aboard. It is clear that this is a race to take advantage of Dublin.
On the surface, it might also look as if the end of the UK’s Dublin privileges after the Brexit transition might make life easier for hopeful asylum-seekers. But UK authorities are already planning changes to take advantage of the post-EU legal order to apply more restrictive asylum rules. Last week, Whitehall announced that anyone caught crossing the channel will be denied the right to asylum automatically, and immediately deported, either back to Europe or to any third country that might agree to take them. It remains unclear whether the new policies will be in breach of international law, which compels countries to hear asylum claims.
Still, these policies are unlikely to deter migrants and refugees from coming to Britain. If current efforts to enforce migration routes across the Mediterranean are any indication, they are likely only to make crossings more dangerous and deadly.
The UK government has waxed lyrical about the need to crack down on smuggling networks, and various media outlets continue to use dramatic images of boat crossings to depict the English Channel as a migration free-for-all. While it may be legal – at least, until the end of the month – for the UK to deport anyone who has been fingerprinted previously in another EU country, it is worth remembering that the stories of migrants and refugees who hope to seek asylum in the UK are rarely as cut-and-dry as the laws that shape them. Many refugees have family members who are already living in Britain, and risk the dangerous – and expensive – journey across the Channel in the hope of reuniting with them after years apart. Others have tried to start new lives in other countries in southern Europe, only to find life as an asylum-seeker there almost as unliveable as the lives from which they fled back home.
Policymakers trying to turn migrants and refugees into political pawns, or those seeking to cynically exploit the pitfalls of international agreements on asylum-seekers, must remember that many of the people affected have powerful, meaningful reasons for risking everything to get to the UK. Brexit will not stop anyone from coming. But it will shape what happens to them next. And that will determine the kind of society Britain wants to make for itself going forward.
Anna Lekas Miller is a London-based journalist specialising in refugees and migration. She is currently working on her first book, Love in Times of Borders