UK’s hostile environment continues to silence already persecuted people

After the infamous “go home” vans, the Windrush scandal and a (failed) policy to push back people crossing the channel on boats, this week the UK government sharpened its latest tool in its hostile environment box: the Rwanda plan. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak threw a surprise press conference about the government’s Rwanda policy, now freshly emboldened with a new treaty following the Supreme Court’s declaration that Rwanda is not a safe country for UK asylum seekers. The prime minister said he would “finish the job” of getting his controversial deportation plan off the ground.

Questions from journalists to Sunak centred largely around what a vote on new legislation means for the state of the Conservative Party and Sunak’s position as leader. There are free speech implications here too and so I’d like to add a few questions to the list: how does the Rwanda plan impact people at risk? How will the UK keep safe persecuted people? And how will we make sure that people who have a legal right to seek asylum have a voice?

Of the latter, last summer, the BBC aired Sir Mo Farah’s documentary on his experience of being trafficked to the UK from Somaliland as a child, and how he was forced to work as a domestic servant. He was told, “If you ever want to see your family again, don’t say anything. If you say anything, they will take you away.”

His real name is Hussein Abdi Kahin. He was eventually helped in his claim for British citizenship through what was technically fraudulent means and, until the documentary aired, he had remained silent about his true identity, about what he had experienced as a child and really about everything that had weighed on his mind. He feared speaking up and so he stayed silent.

As a much-loved public figure, perhaps Farah knew he would have some modicum of protection if he revealed the truth, which it turns out he did. For others who are victims of trafficking, asking for help can be another story. The only option of escaping exploitation might be going to the authorities and seeking asylum, but this is not the most appealing, or even easy, route. Aberystwyth University’s Gillian McFayden described the Home Office’s “culture of disbelief” in 2018, and how in interviews “inconsistencies will be held against the asylum seeker and they will then be viewed as lacking in credibility.” Trauma is difficult to recount in a consistent way – and this is effectively used against people.

When I last visited Calais and spoke to people planning to cross to the UK (and where they frequently reported violence from French police), there was also a severe lack of clear information about what life in the UK would be like and how the system works. Rumours abounded, amid patchy access to data and language barriers. With a landscape ripe for misinformation and policies that are already unclear amongst the UK public, the confusion that comes from a complicated and hostile environment only leaves people making the journey to the UK more susceptible to exploitation.

Then there is Rwanda itself, hardly known for its robust human rights record. Sile Reynolds, head of asylum advocacy at Freedom from Torture, told me today: “We know from our own clients – survivors of torture who’ve fled the most unimaginable horrors and encountered further trauma on their journeys to find safety – the awful toll that this policy has taken on them. Clinicians have reported that some of our clients are so terrified of being shipped off thousands of miles away to Rwanda that they’d contemplate committing suicide if they were ever served with a removal notice. The stakes really could not be any higher.”

On Rwanda, let’s pause for a moment on its rights record. There is widespread evidence of the abuse of LGBTQ+ people, as just one example. Grassroots asylum support charity African Rainbow Family launched a petition earlier this year to stop the deportation of LGBTQ+ people to the country. On a poster for their No Pride in Deportation campaign, they wrote, “One of our service users was just granted her freedom by the Home Office. She was forced to flee her home in Rwanda due to the persecution she faced as an LGBTIQ+ person. Even the Home Office recognises that Rwanda is unsafe for LGBTIQ+ people.”

They said of LGBTQ+ people: “Deporting them back to these hostile environments can risk condemning them to continued suffering, exile, physical harm, emotional trauma, abuse, isolation, torture and death.”

On the UK government’s own foreign travel advice page for Rwanda it says: “LGBT individuals can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities.” Should we be sending people to a country where they can’t freely express their identity, where doing so could even lead to death?

With the strengthening of the hostile environment comes the lack of something else: safe routes. It’s not just people already in the UK being impacted by this asylum policy, but persecuted people looking to the UK for help. Take the Afghan journalists we work with who fled to Pakistan only to find more danger awaiting them, and little opportunity to earn a living. Some told us they had considered selling a kidney to afford food, which, horrifyingly, others have indeed done. And after Pakistan forced Afghan refugees to leave at the beginning of November, the situation may have become even more dangerous. Women in Afghanistan have no voice. There is no room for dissent or criticism.

Thankfully, some of the Afghan journalists we work with have found sanctuary in France, after the UK failed to make good on promises of refuge. There are still many more Afghans at risk who should be offered safety in the UK, but instead the focus is on deterrents over safe routes and compassion.

Reynolds accused the government of the “demonisation and scapegoating of refugees” and called policies like the Rwanda scheme and Bibby Stockholm “performative cruelty.” For people seeking refuge in this environment, fear breeds silence. For persecuted people who are still looking for safe routes, there are few options left but more danger.

“An attack on encryption unprecedented in any democracy” 

Cast your mind back to January 2023, and the “world-leading, world-first Online Safety Bill” (Rishi Sunak responding to Labour’s Alex Davies-Jones) faced a significant backbench rebellion over an executive liability clause.

When the Bill landed in the House of Lords days later, a precarious agreement between Government and rebels had passed on a vast baton of legislative issues. There was a collective sigh of relief that the upper chamber would be taking on the mantle.

The threat to encryption, or private messaging, didn’t even feature as a concern amongst legislators, let alone the government, despite the Bill introducing measures unprecedented in any western democracy.

Flash forward to September, and encryption features as the most important and urgent issue that needs addressing before the Online Safety Act receives imminent Royal Assent.

The efforts of my colleagues at Index on Censorship, partners across civil society, and the businesses that rely on encryption have all been vital in achieving this.

Confidence in the Government’s ability to grasp the full consequences and details of their legislation has waned thin. Index and others have consistently warned that Section 122 of the Act is a gateway to the unprecedented mass-surveillance of British citizens and a threat to vulnerable people up and down the country.

As Index on Censorship’s report with Matthew Ryder KC set out:

  • Section 122 notices install the right to impose technologies that would intercept and scan private communications on a mass scale. The principle that the state can mandate the surveillance of millions of lawful users of private messaging apps should require a higher threshold of justification which has not been established to date.

  • Ofcom could impose surveillance on all private messaging users with a notice, underpinned by significant financial penalties, with less legal protections than equivalent powers under the Invetsigatory Powers Act.

  • The proposed interferences with the rights of UK citizens arising from surveillance under the Bill are unlikely to be in accordance with the law and are open to legal challenge.

  • Journalists will not be properly protected from state surveillance, risking source confidentiality and endangering human rights defenders and vulnerable communities.

From raising awareness of encryption in public debate, demonstrating its real-world effects for policy makers, to highlighting the unintended legal and technological consequences of the Bill, we finally have a Government that is at least not running head first into an attack on encryption that would be unprecedented in any democracy.

But the encryption die remains far from cast. Reports in the FT and elsewhere alluded to a Government ‘u-turn’ ahead of a Ministerial statement on Wednesday (6 September) that delivered nothing of the sort.

While some in the Government are briefing that encryption will be protected, the actions of its ministers do not match up to those words.

A new report by Index on Censorship this week revealed that that Online Safety Bill has alarming consequences when put alongside the controversial Investigatory Powers Act (snooper’s charter). This access, unprecedented in any Western democracy, could provide the Home Office with entry to British citizens’ personal messages as follows:.

  • Ofcom issues notice mandating the use of Accredited Technology to provide a backdoor to encrypted messages under the Online Safety Bill (section 122)

  • The Home Office or security services apply for a bulk surveillance warrant on account of a matter of national security (Investigatory Powers Act) granting them access to bulk data

This is extremely concerning, not least because the window in which the Government can legislate its way out of this mess is rapidly closing. The Online Safety Bill will return to the House of Commons for the first time in eight months on Monday (11 September) for a consideration of Lords’ amendments.

This is the last and only chance the Government has to follow up words with actions. They must go beyond Wednesday’s ministerial statement and allay the concerns once and for all by amending the Bill’s Section 122 notices as well excluding use of the IPA in conjunction with the Bill.

Our report sets out how the government can get this right. We’re running out of time. We hope that the government will see sense and put down amendments to fix the backdoor in the Online Safety Bill.

Journalists will struggle to speak truth to power if the power isn’t showing up

One of the core tenets of media freedom is the ability to speak truth to power, to hold decisionmakers and political leaders to account. At Index we see every day what happens in countries where media freedoms are curtailed, where journalists are arrested or threatened for doing their jobs, where there is no such thing as a free press. We were founded to ensure that there would always be a platform to publish the stories of those people who cannot be heard in their own countries – media freedom is therefore one of the core principles which Index defends every day.

In my opinion the way in which journalists are treated is a health-check on the state of a government’s commitment to human rights. On whether they are upholding the democratic values that we all hold so dear. Whether that’s at a local or national level.

In the last decade the importance of news coverage has been made clear every day. In the UK, since 2014, we have had two referendums, three general elections, five Prime Ministers, a pandemic and a recession. We have never needed engaged journalists more – nor politicians to be accessible. Historically this was never an issue, politicians tend to like featuring in the media (and I say that as someone who was elected) and journalists are usually happy to oblige. A mainstay of British political engagement is the traditional morning media round – designed to set the news agenda for the day. Every day Government Ministers speak on the morning TV and radio news programmes – not just to announce new initiatives but to respond to the news of the day. I don’t doubt for a second that this is challenging and at times pretty uncomfortable for the politicians – but it is how we daily ensure that our politicians are accountable to their constituents.

However in recent days the British government has changed tack. The new Prime MInister, the Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, has decreed that the morning media round will no longer be a daily occurrence. Ministers will not appear on news outlets unless they have something to announce, or if there is something the government wants to discuss. Journalists will struggle to speak truth to power if the power isn’t showing up. This is not the action of a government that is prepared to be held to account on the issues that matter to the people they seek to represent.

Where countries claim a democratic tradition, each has a cultural difference. They have a different feel and a different tradition. It is difficult to judge one against another. Journalists adhere to both their career and cultural norms and for some that may not be a daily interrogation of their government, but in the UK it has been for as long as I can remember. This is a bad decision by the new PM, a decision that I think he will regret and one that will be quietly dropped. We all deserve to know what our government is doing and in the UK – we are dependent on our journalists to find out. This is why we defend journalists both at home and abroad, because media freedom is a core tenet of our democracy.

Questions that Sunak should have asked Mohammad bin Salman at G20…(but probably didn’t)

Earlier this morning the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20. According to comments made on Twitter they: welcomed strong trade relations and collaboration in defence and security; committed to deepening investment ties, and discussed the importance of making progress on social reforms. 

While we do not know what was said in the meeting, there is no clarity as to whether this included the increasing clampdown on free expression in Saudi Arabia that has hastened under bin Salman’s leadership. The UK Government has time and time again reiterated its commitment to championing human rights both at home and across the globe but in this case the silence is deafening. 

It is not as if there are a scarcity of issues that need to be addressed.

What the Prime Minister could have asked

  1. Under the guise of cybercrime, the Specialized Criminal Court has been increasingly used to target people who are realising their right to free expression to participate in protected and civic dialogue. This includes Salma al-Shehab, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, ten Egyptian Nubians and Dr Lina al-Sharif. What steps are the Saudi authorities taking to ensure the court works in line with international human rights standards to protect free expression?
  2. Salma al-Shehab was in the UK when she posted comments on Twitter that proved to be the basis of her arrest and imprisonment when she returned to Saudi Arabia. To what extent do Saudi laws impact on dissidents outside of the country and what protections are in place to ensure Saudi Arabia does not damage the right to free expression in other countries, including its allies and trading partners? 
  3. It has been reported that the app, Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security, which is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play app store was used to draw the Saudi authority’s attention to the tweet sent by Salma al-Shehab. This app has been developed by the Saudi authorities, so can you advise as to what safeguards are in place to ensure the app cannot be used again to violate a Saudi citizen’s right to free expression? 
  4. Bodies and individuals connected to Saudi Arabia are the joint second largest shareholders in the social media platform Twitter. At the same time, a former Twitter manager has been convicted in the USA of spying for Saudi Arabia, accessing private data on users critical of the kingdom’s government. In light of Saudi’s corporate interests in the platform, as well as its commitment to international law and human rights standards, have any steps been taken to ensure that data from the platform is not being used to target dissidents who are engaging in protected acts of free expression?
  5. As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google is setting up, in partnership with the state-owned company Saudi Aramco, a data centre in Saudi Arabia for its cloud computing platform serving business customers. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the centre is protected against improper interference?
  6. At a time when Saudi Arabia has started opening itself up to tourism and is spending huge amounts of money trying to attract visitors to the Kingdom what is the country doing to reassure those who visit who come from countries with a strong commitment to free expression that they will not be arbitrarily detained or worse if they express their views openly?

A few questions Rishi should have asked himself (but probably didn’t) before the meeting

  1. Do trade deals and geopolitical relationships with authoritarian governments trump the UK’s commitment to free expression and human rights?
  2. What are we doing to secure the release of Salma al-Shehab and others connected to the UK who have been imprisoned across the globe for realising their right to free expression, such as Alaa Abd el-Fattah in Egypt and Sophia Huang Xueqin in China?
  3. Is there anything the UK can do to better protect the public’s right to free expression, particularly those residing in the UK who are increasingly being targeted by the extraterritorial extension of laws by authoritarian regimes beyond their borders?

A couple of questions Rishi should ask himself in a darkened room when no one else is around

  1. Is the UK still a leader in protecting free expression and human rights across the globe? 
  2. Was it ever?