Human Rights Act: Winston Churchill's words should shame UK Government over its treatment of refugees and people like Shamima Begum – Dr Paul Arnell

Endemic and pernicious political short-termism and populism have led the UK Government to adopt a number of misguided policies.

Two stand out on account of their inhumanity and egregiousness. They relate to persons crossing the English Channel seeking sanctuary and radicalised UK residents who have travelled to Syria and elsewhere to support or fight with forces aligned with Isis, aka Islamic State. If carried out these policies will undoubtedly be judged to be on the wrong side of history.

The first policy is designed to summarily remove to Rwanda persons arriving in the UK on small boats. The second to deprive those who travelled abroad in support of radical Islamist groups of their nationality. There is little question that these constituencies, putative refugees and so-called foreign terrorist fighters, elicit little popular sympathy.

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The former are depicted in the tabloid press, at best, as economic migrants coming to steal the jobs of British workers. At worst, they are criminals seeking to continue their nefarious ways in the UK. The latter are enemies and traitors, who have betrayed the trust put in them by society and lent their support to groups bent on destroying the British way of life.

These two constituencies are very different. In many cases, those crossing the Channel have left a war zone, be it in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Their livelihoods were most likely destroyed, along with their homes. They are desperate and destitute, having left everything behind. While there are undoubtedly exceptions, the large majority have literally fled for their lives and are seeking a sanctuary until it is safe to return to their countries.

Those who have left the UK to support Islamic State or a kindred terrorist organisation are misguided individuals who have succumbed to the influence and propaganda of bigots who seek to foment discord and division. They have been radicalised after coming under the influence of malign and pernicious persons who sow discord for their own benefit. The UK’s freedom of expression and social deprivation align to provide the conditions for this to happen, but surviving foreign terrorist fighters eventually realise their mistake and seek to return to UK.

What both those crossing the English Channel in small boats and foreign terrorist fighters have in common is that they have been extraordinarily vilified and singled out as threats to the sovereignty and security of the country. This categorisation has been used to justify disproportionate, indeed Draconian, policy responses.

The headline policy response to small boat Channel crossings has been a plan to summarily relocate persons landing on UK shores to Rwanda under a memorandum of understanding agreed in April 2002. The deal saw the UK pay the Rwandan government £120 million, as well as costs per asylum seeker to cover flights, administration etc.

A soldier from the Royal Artillery Regiment carries a young child ashore from Border Force boat Valiant at Dover (Picture: Chris Eades/Getty Images)A soldier from the Royal Artillery Regiment carries a young child ashore from Border Force boat Valiant at Dover (Picture: Chris Eades/Getty Images)
A soldier from the Royal Artillery Regiment carries a young child ashore from Border Force boat Valiant at Dover (Picture: Chris Eades/Getty Images)

The most high-profile policy response to foreign terrorist fighters has been the deprivation of their British nationality. This can only take place where the individual is a dual national or eligible to acquire a second nationality. To deprive those with only British nationality would render a person stateless, in contravention of international and UK law. That noted, the position is rarely clear or simple.

In the high-profile case of Shamima Begum, her British nationality was taken away in February 2019 in spite of the country where she was then eligible for citizenship, Bangladesh, stating she would be hung if she attempted to enter it. And Jack Letts, called Jihadi Jack in the press, is only now in the process of being repatriated to Canada, with the UK depriving him of his British nationality in August 2019.

The courts have become involved in challenges to both the Rwandan removal plan and in response to nationality deprivations. The European Court of Human Rights intervened as the first Rwanda flight was approaching. An interim measure was granted providing that the removal should not proceed until a final UK judicial decision was made on the matter. An appeal of the High Court’s ruling that the policy was lawful is pending.

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The leading example of judicial challenges to the deprivation of nationality concerns Begum. In February 2021 the Supreme Court held she would not be allowed to return to the UK to take part in her appeal. As such, she has had to instruct her lawyers from the refugee camp in Syria where she has been living for the last three years. In November last year, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission heard her appeal. One argument made was that she was a victim of child trafficking, being 15 at the time she travelled. A decision is pending.

The litigation on the removal scheme and Begum has irritated and frustrated the UK Government. Worryingly, it has contributed to arguments in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act 1998. That law is the cornerstone of human rights protection in the country, protecting everyone, including the marginalised and mainstream. Such a move would be a hugely retrograde step and could eventually lead to the UK’s expulsion from the Council of Europe.

Winston Churchill wrote that one can judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. He meant a society’s worth is measured by whether and how those on the margins are accommodated and respected. The UK Government should be ashamed of these two policies.

This is not to suggest that the appropriate responses will be simple or inexpensive. Far less that everyone entering the UK should be allowed to remain and returning foreign terrorist fighters should not be punished. It is to say that if the UK fails to treat all persons with dignity and humanity it betrays the values of liberalism and tolerance upon which the right side of history indubitably aligns.

Dr Paul Arnell is a reader in law at Robert Gordon University