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Interviewer: Oxford Human Rights Hub

The Oxford Human Rights Hub (OxHRH) aims to bring together academics, practitioners, and policy-makers from across the globe to advance the understanding and protection of human rights and equality. Through the vigorous exchange of ideas and resources, we strive to facilitate a better understanding of human rights principles, to develop new approaches to policy, and to influence the development of human rights law and practice.
Cathryn Costello on the UK Immigration Bill

TRANSCRIPT: Dr Cathryn Costello: The Illegal Migration Bill 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (0:00) You’re listening to RightsUp, a podcast from the Oxford Human Rights Hub. I’m Daniil Ukhorskiy, Blog Editor at the Hub. In today’s episode, we talk to Cathryn Costello, Professor of Law at the University of Oxford and the Hertie School, about the UK Illegal Migration Bill.1 


(0:16) Cathryn, thank you so much for joining me today. To start, for some of our listeners who may not be as familiar with the legal background, can you just tell us what the human rights implications are of the proposed Bill? 


Cathryn Costello (0:31) The Bill focuses on what is framed as “illegal immigration”, although principally it’s directed towards those who arrive on so called “small boats”. So, these are in the main refugees, although what the legislation seeks to do is to create a statutory obligation on the Home Secretary to ensure the removal of anyone, including refugees, who arrive by that mode of arrival. It also vastly increases the powers of detention— in fact, duties of detention of the State as regards those individuals. And thirdly, it greatly restricts judicial overview— judicial oversight of the exercise of these sorts of powers. Fourthly, there are a number of serious implications from a more British constitutional point of view, in particular in relation to the way that the rights that are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights are dealt with in British law and politics. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (1:28) We’ll go back to some of the more significant implications on the British domestic level and implementation of the European Convention, but just generally, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, said that there’s more than a 50% chance that the Bill may breach the European Convention on Human Rights. Can you explain what aspects of it might breach the European Convention and how? 


Cathryn Costello (1:53) Well, I think there would be breaches of the European Convention and other international norms, but focusing on the European Convention, it’s quite clear that if somebody has a protection need — in other words, if they would be subject to a serious human rights violation if they will either return to their home country or return to a third country — that the State in which they find themselves has protection obligations to them, and that means they have to examine their claims, and that runs directly counter to the basic duty in the Bill, which is the Home Secretary’s duty to ensure the removal of these individuals without examining their claims.  


(2:30) So, some of the frameworks in the Bill are not new. So, Suella Braverman also claimed that this was a novel set of approaches — it’s not novel at all. It’s using presumptions of safe countries of origin and “Safe Third Country” to deem claims to be inadmissible. But what it is doing in a new way is removing all the judicial oversight on the use of those tools, and really trying to make people’s claims completely inadmissible to the asylum system. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (2:58) So, if that domestic legal protection is removed, and there are breaches of the European Convention, what are the consequences for both the claimants and more broadly, Great Britain— United Kingdom in its relationship with the European Court? 


Cathryn Costello (3:15) Well, even on the face of the legislation, it doesn’t completely remove access to the British courts. I mean, to do that, with that sort of a total ouster clause, would be unconstitutional, according to long-established principles of British constitutionalism. So, there are some kind of caveats and limit— very limited access to the courts for certain types of claims. And these are framed in very strange kind of language. So, there is a way to get into the British courts. 


(3:44) So, for example, although there isn’t much judicial oversight of detention powers anymore, habeas corpus powers will remain — so, these sort of residual common law powers of the British courts. And similarly, although there isn’t access to an asylum system to have one’s refugee claim examined, there is a residual ability to be able to bring, but in very limited terms, a claim saying if removed, that that would lead to a serious human rights issue.  


(4:11) So, these issues will in— invariably end up before the British courts, and then the British courts have to decide how are they going to weigh up British common law constitutional principles, international law, which they have also a long and proud history of interpreting and applying and the wording of the statute. 


(4:28) And I suppose what’s missing in the statute also is what is generally part of all British statutes that have been passed since the Human Rights Act 1998, which is a statement requiring legislation to be interpreted in a human rights compatible manner, and that’s no longer in the legislation. And so that’s been seen as sort of a backdoor to side-lining the Human Rights Act.  


(4:52) So, undoubtedly there will be challenges before the British courts, but they’ll be exceedingly complex, and the powers of the British judges are constrained, and so there’s really, like, a lot of complex doctrinal questions, but also questions for how judges see their own constitutional role under the British Constitution that I think will be invariably tested over the next months and years. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (5:18) So, more broadly speaking, it seems that the Bill is part of a broader policy of this government to come into an increasingly violent conflict with the European Convention and the European Court. This may be a little bit of a difficult or controversial question, but according to some of the recent polling, this could be a fight that is actually popular with the electorate. Are you concerned that this is one that this government could actually win, and that by using and weaponising the issue, and sort of the dehumanisation of refugees and migrants, this could be the first step to a broader erosion of human rights protections as enshrined in the European Convention? 


Cathryn Costello (6:08) I mean, there are two ways to think about that. I mean, there’s— there’s a trend in the UK, which is worrying from a rule of law and human rights point of view — an authoritarian trend. And the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants is part of that, but in a way, they’re scapegoats. I mean, in a way, that’s one of the more grotesque aspects of this policy — it’s not a serious policy that can be easily implemented. It’s framed as such, as if this is a serious way to deter irregular migration. Everybody knows that it isn’t. 


(6:39) And so in that way, that kind of grotesque political theatre, you know, it’s all the more worrying because, you know, this is part of an authoritarian playbook, to scapegoat very vulnerable people who were virtually voiceless in the political domain, you know, build-up a head of political steam about this issue, which of course is, you know, a highly politically salient issue for many people in the UK. There is a long game with electoral advantage in this. So, I think this is really a politicisation of the human rights of very vulnerable people. That itself is worrying from the point of view of an authoritarian slide. 


(7:17) And, you know, there’s a whole body of work on authoritarian legalism, and the way that safeguards for human rights and democracy, you know, can be dismantled piecemeal. And this Bill really belongs, I think, as part of a wider trend, which is unfortunately evident in the UK as well as elsewhere. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (7:37) And you mentioned that this is not a serious policy, and one thing that I’ve read in connection to similar claims is one about the self-imposition of statutory duties, which you also mentioned at the start, that can’t really be fulfilled. Could you talk a little bit more about that? 


Cathryn Costello (7:57) Well, what the Bill invites us to imagine is that the Home Secretary can remove everyone who arrives. And what does “can move” mean in this context? You know, that it is, you know, realistically possible. And what that ignores is the fact that to deport somebody they have to be accepted by another State. And so very often the countries of origin of people who arrive in this manner are countries like Afghanistan, to which it is not possible to deport someone. So, countries of origin are often out because they’re dangerous, or they’re dysfunctional, or there’s no way of deporting somebody there. It’s both— these are both legal, ethical, and also, I should say, practical impairments.  


(8:43) So, then we’re talking about Safe Third Country arrangements, and similarly Safe Third Country arrangements depend on the cooperation of the Third States, whether that Third State is France, or Rwanda. So, to send somebody to France, the UK has obviously made the— its role in relation to Safe Third Country returns across Europe, which used to be part of this— sort of, the Dublin system, which it was part of, when it was a member state of the European Union, then at least what was there was a bureaucratic system for returns. Even in that highly developed system it doesn’t work most of the time, because there will be, again, legal and practical impediments to sending people. But without the arrangements of the Dublin system, it’s even less likely you’ll have Safe Third— Safe Third Country returns. And as we know, you know, there hasn’t been any returns to Rwanda, for example. And again, for very good legal and practical reasons.  


(9:40) And no matter how the Bill tries to get us to imagine the exercise of migration control powers, that doesn’t make it so — simply writing down that the Home Secretary has a duty to ensure removal doesn’t make it any more likely that removal will take place. And so I think that’s the sort of foundational lie in this— in this policy. 


Cathryn Costello (10:03) And then there’s a second layer, because we’re also invited to imagine that if everybody was removed or removable, that nobody would come, so that it would deter future arrivals. And so that’s a second set of empirical suppositions that are based on very scant evidence, to put it mildly. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (10:21) Thank you. And just one last question. We’ve discussed the various legal, practical, moral flaws with this proposed Bill. But there are also very significant risks to human life that are incurred on the asylum seekers who crossed the channel. It’s an incredibly dangerous journey, and one that extracts a terrible toll on them. So, can you imagine or even suggest a human rights compliant way of limiting these crossings, and I would even go one step further, not one that is just human rights compliant, but one that you think is ethically and morally good. 


Cathryn Costello (11:04) I think we have to widen the lens a little bit from boat crossings and think more generally about why it is that the journeys of refugees have become so dangerous. So, that story isn’t just of boat crossings, which of course are spectacular and mediatised, and also, as you said, extremely dangerous. But you know, there’s a long history of decades of asylum seekers mainly making it to the UK in the backs of lorries, where they were at risk of suffocation. So, you know, there are very visible dangerous routes and there are less visible dangerous routes. 


(11:44) But the background to that is two things— is that there is a system of migration control in the world, which deprives would be refugees from refugee-producing countries, countries of conflict and persecution of, you know, virtually all ability to travel legally. And that’s because if you have the wrong passport, you can’t get visas to enter countries like the UK or to enter the EU, generally speaking. So that explains the predicament of Afghans today, even post-Taliban. It explains the predicament of Syrians in 2015, who had to make mass irregular arrivals into Europe. And so there are really two elements to this— these set of practices that I tend to call “refugee containment practices”. One is visas — so, passports plus visas — and the second element is carrier sanctions. 


(12:36) Carrier sanctions are a policy of relatively recent origin. And so, the EU introduced them in the 2000s, and before then, one could travel without your documents in order— at least, you know, you could get on a ferry — the ferry owner wasn’t going to check your papers, that wasn’t their business. Neither did airlines — they didn’t routinely check that everybody’s paperwork was in order. And so that meant that actually, it’s not that long ago that there was a world in which protection seekers had a lot more mobility. So we can cite, you know, the practice of even— you know, three decades ago in Europe, things were quite different about refugee mobility. 


(13:14) The contemporary example then that shows that you can do protection en masse completely differently is the treatment of Ukrainians, because since 2017 Ukrainians haven’t needed a visa to enter the EU. So, especially looking at the EU context, that has meant that, in addition to offering them temporary protection en masse — which is temporary, it’s not the same as refugee protection, but it’s nonetheless significant — Ukrainians can, in effect, choose their country of asylum, and they’re not contained in their home countries, in the same way as other displaced persons often are. 


(13:49) So, I think we have at least those two examples of how protection could be done differently. If States then objected, saying, “Well, we’ll end up overburdened”, I think you’d have to look at the possibilities of responsibility-sharing. And again, there’s lots of very interesting policy and practice one can look into there, both historical and also very interesting new work about preference-matching, which would enable refugees to, you know, offer their skills to places where they were needed, and that might also encourage States to accept more refugees. 


(14:20) But what you get at present is really— a really toxic situation where States overstate their responsibility. So, the UK Government and the UK media have, you know, created a situation where most of the British public vastly overestimate the number of asylum seekers, both coming to and in the UK, and has done for decades. That’s something that the Migration Observatory in Oxford has done some excellent work on. And then you don’t even begin a serious conversation about global responsibility-sharing for refugees. But of course, States could create all sorts of different mechanisms where nobody had to turn to smugglers in order to travel. And I think that understanding that it’s visas plus carriers sanctions, and that those are our policies, British policies, or EU policies, or policies of the US and other States in the Global North— understanding that that distribution of mobility is the sort of basic driver of irregular migration I think is really crucial. 


Daniil Ukhorskiy (15:21) RightsUp is brought to you by the Oxford Human Rights Hub. The Executive Producer is Meghan Campbell. This episode was produced and edited by Sophie Smith and hosted by Daniil Ukhorskiy. Music for this series is by Rosemary Allmann. Show Notes for this episode have been written by Sarah Dobbie. Subscribe to this podcast wherever you listen to your favourite podcasts. 


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