The newspapers said hundreds of people were there, but from my vantage point on top of a repurposed fire engine it looked like thousands. As the sun set over London on Monday night, Parliament Square was filling up despite bracing gale force gusts and icy downpours. They came with placards and thick coats on, pouring across the road in front of the Palace of Westminster, until you could no longer see the mud and sludge that had eaten the grass.
Atop the fire engine a fraught five minutes of technical snags ended as I put a mic to my lips and my words, say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here, echoed out of the vehicle’s horns. Later my friend who works inside Parliament shouted up to tell me that they could hear us in the building. As our demo was starting, shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper was on her feet, laying out Labour’s position (or rather, the one they had chosen at that moment) on the Government’s new Illegal Migration Bill.
The bill has been mired in controversy since it was announced by Home Secretary Suella Braverman last week. With many dubbing it the “Refugee Ban Bill,” the legislation ramps up the UK’s hostile treatment of migrants by denying those arriving via the Channel access to the asylum system. Numbers arriving via that route have been steadily increasing as other, safer routes have been closed. The spectre of small boat crossings has become a boogeyman under this Government, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak including “stopping the boats” in his list of five priorities for the country. Previous attempts to block or limit the right to asylum, including the Rwanda deal announced last April, have failed to stop desperate people placing themselves and their families in mortal danger to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane.
So extreme are the measures within the legislation that, upon introduction to the Commons, Braverman was forced to concede (via written addition to the front of the bill) that its contents may breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The UN refugee agency stated that they are “profoundly concerned” by the Illegal Migration Bill, which includes measures to remove modern slavery protections and the ability to make human rights claims whilst also granting the Home Secretary powers to detain people in any place, for any amount of time.
According to civil rights group Liberty, the bill risks breaching the right to seek asylum (UN Refugee Convention), protection from torture (European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) Article 3), protection from slavery and servitude including human trafficking (ECHR Article 4), the rights of potential modern slavery victims (Modern Slavery Act), the right to liberty and security (ECHR Article 5) and the right to effective remedy (ECHR Article 13).
The bill gives the Home Secretary the power to overrule ‘interim measures’ by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) – a tool used by the Court in extreme cases to place a temporary stop on an action likely to produce a significant breach of human rights to allow time for a full judgement to take place. It also gives the Home Secretary the sole power to decide whether a threshold for ‘serious and irreversible harm’ has been met when deporting/detaining people, a term intentionally not defined in the bill.
A Liberty spokesperson told Huck, “This Bill will effectively allow the Government to commit human rights abuses without consequences. Excluding refugees and migrants from the protection of the Human Rights Act is abhorrent and wrong. Human rights are universal and it’s not up to the Government to pick and choose who does and doesn’t deserve them.
“Removing the right to appeal asylum decisions is a shocking attack on the rule of law.” They continued, “Our laws guarantee our right to due process and to get justice when our rights are violated – no matter who we are or where we are from.”
The proposed legislation would make the journeys of many of those who spoke on Monday impossible.
Those who escaped war, torture and persecution spoke eloquently and movingly about the realities of the system successive Governments have created. They spoke of the UK’s humanity – which, in spite of the hostile environment fostered by Government policy and fuelled by tabloid sensationalism, I genuinely believe rests at the heart of most people. They spoke of the need to resist this bill; to say loudly and clearly the refugees and migrants are welcome here.
Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, also spoke, telling those assembled that the new bill wasn’t going to put any money into services, schools or hospitals. Politicians like Westminster Leader of the SNP Stephen Flynn, Labour MP Nadia Whittome and Green MP Caroline Lucas, fresh from ripping up the bill in the commons, also addressed the crowds.
They were joined by a striking junior doctor as well as ex-leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP, who said “It is great to see so many people demonstrating for dignity, kindness and compassion for some of the most vulnerable people in the world – refugees. They are refugees from wars, famine and human rights abuses who are looking for a place of safety in this world. They are human beings just like the rest of us. They deserve to be able to exercise their legal rights to seek asylum without the demonising and divisive rhetoric of the government.”
This rhetoric, increasingly histrionic and violent in tone over the last decade, has sparked the most fury around the bill. In response to the announcement of the legislation, BBC Football pundit and former England player Gary Lineker tweeted that it is “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at that most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
The fallout from the tweet dominated headlines for days, as Lineker refused to delete it and was promptly taken off air. Most BBC football content was either cancelled or severely reduced as fellow pundits and commentators walked out in solidarity. The row quickly moved from discussing the bill and instead focused on BBC impartiality and freedom of speech. The escalation that followed, with Lineker being doorstepped, Members of Parliament intervening, the Prime Minister refusing to back the Director General of the BBC – who was then farcically interviewed by BBC News – proved to be both a curse and a blessing.
The media circus surrounding the affair, which was resolved on Monday morning, kept the bill in the news perhaps more than it otherwise would have. However, while the issue of a BBC personality publicly criticising the Government has been resolved, the actual contents of the bill remain woefully unexplored by a media class that seemed far more interested in chasing said BBC personality around outside his home.
Let’s be clear. As ex-shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott told crowds gathered on Monday evening, Lineker’s tweet was correct. The horrors and the industrial slaughter of Jewish, Roma and other peoples did not just arrive overnight. The holocaust was the culmination of years of denigration and persecution. Of constructing an enemy and manufacturing widespread consent for what came next. This bill is a terrifying escalation of much of what has come before, and must be seen in those terms, as well as within a wider context of draconian attacks on fundamental rights by this Government. It targets some of the most vulnerable people, forced to take unthinkable risks to reach safety and sanctuary because of the decisions taken in Whitehall, in the Home Office and in Parliament itself.
Piece by piece, bit by bit, the Government’s Hostile Environment agenda has made it more and more difficult for people escaping war, terror, climate change and persecution to seek the protection guaranteed to them by international treaties – treaties that Britain historically has been instrumental in framing, creating and implementing. What’s more, those who simply attempt to move have been systematically painted as the enemy. Coming over here to steal our homes, our jobs, what’s left of our welfare system. An invasion that is the harbinger of our troubles, rather than the decade of swingeing cuts, corporate greed and landlordism left untouched amidst out of control markets.
Each round of legislation to deal with this so-called invasion or crisis brings with it a tightening of the noose where rights are concerned. Attempts to stop “lefty lawyers” and pesky human rights concerns also threaten everyone.
These bills come as the Government seeks to pass yet another piece of legislation which curtails the right to protest in the shape of the Public Order Bill, whilst also seeking to limit the ability of people to go on strike with the Minimum Services bill. This after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts act of last year introduced swingeing changes to the right to protest, as well as sections that campaigners warned would be used to directly target Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Every direction you turn, this Government’s sprint to authoritarianism feels more and more terrifying, with migrant communities, amongst others, right at the forefront of this shift. It’s why, across the weekend, a few friends and I got together to call the demonstration on Monday.
As Monday night drew to a close, with MPs still furiously debating the bill just across the road, Jeremy Corbyn finished his speech by saying: “In my community and across the country people are coming together, uniting against the Tories’ disgusting legislation and standing with refugees.” And he was right to. Whilst the vocal opposition from public figures like Lineker is a welcome development, particularly in a media landscape so whipped behind Government lines and framing, it is not where this fight will be won.
Progressive battles throughout history have been fought and won on the streets. Whether it’s communities in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dalston and Peckham resisting immigration raids, action against the Rwanda flight, the blocking of coaches outside Harmondsworth Detention Centre in 2021, or dozens of other actions and interventions, our true power lies in solidarity and action. As I looked out on Monday night, I remembered that. And remembered that there are many, many more of us, and that when we stand together and fight, we are unstoppable.
Monday was just the beginning of the fight against this bill. I know we’ll keep coming out onto the streets for each other, time and time again, until we win.