We will soon have “full control” of our borders, or so Priti Patel tells us. MPs will this evening consider legislation fundamentally challenging the principle of refugee protection in the UK. They will debate the merits (or many demerits) of the nationality and borders bill at its second reading in the House of Commons. Unveiling the proposed legislation earlier this year, the Home Secretary hailed it as a plan to fix a “broken” asylum system that has for too long “lined the pockets of the vile criminal gangs who cheat the system”. Robert Buckland said the bill will result in a system “resolving cases more quickly and reducing the burden on our legal system”. Labour is pointing out that it fails to deliver either.
The bill will cement in primary legislation a two-tier system of refugee protection. Inadmissibility rules, which came into effect through secondary legislation earlier this year, will be placed on a statutory footing. They focus not on treating each arrival in the UK based on their need but on how they came to be here. Those making ‘irregular’ journeys, such as by boat, are deemed not to be deserving of the same protection, if any, as those who come through an official resettlement scheme. These schemes can be hard to access, with many turned away from overcrowded camps where they can apply for the UK’s two programmes, while some countries simply have no obvious camps where they are operational.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants has said these inadmissibility rules create a six-month ‘long stop’ on all claims made by people coming through irregular means, during which time the government tries to make a deal to remove them to any other country. Those not resettled through a deal will then have their claim assessed in the usual way, but be granted a new, less generous, ‘temporary protection’ status. It is worth noting at this point that the Home Office currently has no arrangements with other countries, and that 76% of people seeking asylum currently wait longer than six months for their claim to be assessed. Meanwhile, between January and March this year, the Home Office issued 1,503 asylum seekers with ‘notices of intent’ informing them that their case was being reviewed for removal on inadmissibility grounds. The long stop has only meant many applications put on hold with no realistic prospect of removal or solution.
People who arrive through irregular means but are recognised as refugees will be granted temporary protection, which gives them only limited right to remain, and makes them subject to notorious ‘no-recourse-to-public-funds’ (NRPF) conditions and restrictions on family reunion. It is difficult to see restricting the rights of family reunion as anything more than an attempt to drive down the already low number of refugees the UK takes in. Up to 3,500 fewer people will be able to come to the UK if this route is closed off, and 90% of those are women and children. Many families send one person ahead on the risky journey with the hope that their children or spouse might follow. The JCWI has therefore warned that the government is heading for an “unprecedented reduction in access to asylum in the UK”.
A somewhat unexpected casualty of the bill could be the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, legal experts have warned. This is because a clause redefining the offence of “facilitating” illegal immigration has been so vaguely worded that it would criminalise the RNLI for saving lives at sea. Of course, this means that asylum seekers would be the real casualties here. The bill codifies Crown Prosecution Service guidance that the offence could be applied to asylum seekers who steer boats across the Channel. This is despite the National Crime Agency confirming recently that it has received intelligence of asylum seekers being forced to carry out work without pay by smuggling gangs. As one asylum seeker, jailed for 17 months after pleading guilty to steering a boat, said: he did so because he “didn’t want to die at sea”. Nick Thomas-Symonds has pointed out that, had this legislation been in place when Sir Nicholas Winton was rescuing hundreds of children from the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, it would have risked criminalising him.
The United Nations Commissioner for Refugees has called on the government to drop the plans to create a “lower class of refugees“, warning that the bill risks breaching the 1951 Refugee Convention that “clearly protect the universal right to seek asylum and for refugees to access basic rights”. This is also a key argument put forward by Thomas-Symonds. He has described the Convention as one of the “foundation stones” upon which postwar governments have stood, adding: “I never thought any government would stand outside that fine British tradition.”
The nationality and borders bill does not fix the ‘broken’ system, Thomas-Symonds has argued. It makes no provision for replacing the EU Dublin III accords, for example, which allowed those seeking asylum to be returned to safe countries. Without this, he said, the whole system will be “jammed”. And the reforms target asylum seekers; as the Shadow Home Secretary and others have pointed out, it does nothing to address the criminal activity of smuggling gangs and further undermines protections for their victims. The bill “makes it harder for victims to access support, music to the ears of modern slavery gangs”, Thomas-Symonds said, adding: “Tougher sentences for criminals are necessary, but there has to be support for victims.” Victims already disincentivized from reporting the criminal networks since they are likely to be targeted for arrest and deportation themselves.
“The cruel irony of this government’s approach is that it is weak on taking action against criminal gangs – and brutal when it comes to orphaned children from war zones,” the Shadow Home Secretary has concluded. “The bill is an attempt to talk tough, but will deliver nothing.” Labour’s stance is outright opposition, and the party will vote against it at second reading. Once it has completed all stages in the lower chamber, it will proceed to the House of Lords later this year. This is where the government has least control and amendments may be proposed. But, with its large Commons majority, the government will no doubt succeed in its clampdown. Faced with a choice between targeting human traffickers or penalising the people they exploit, between helping asylum seekers or raising the drawbridge, on both counts the government is opting for the latter.