The illegal migration bill fails to tackle criminality and is a waste of MPs’ time

Stella Creasy
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

When the bill itself is so deplorable, why care whether it is called the illegal migration bill? I’ve tabled an amendment to remove illegal from this bill’s title, because challenging the idea it covers criminal activity is crucial to recognising how it wastes precious parliamentary time – and how this government is twisting the practice of parliament in order to do so. This isn’t semantics. It’s drawing a line in the sand.

The bill prohibits considering a claim for asylum from someone who has not come to the UK via a ‘safe and legal’ route –formalising toxic rhetoric that somehow those who seek protection in another country are doing something illegal. A moment’s pause, and most realise such routes are unusual – that queuing systems to apply for a visa for asylum in a war zone are a fantasy and that someone being persecuted for their religious beliefs or political affiliations can’t apply formally to their oppressor for permission to travel without facing consequences. We now see first hand what such people face, through social media and news footage, yet this government is trying to claim that those in the boats are not the same people you see hiding in cupboards as bombs fall – pushing the idea that all those in the boats are Albanian, as if no one is ever trafficked from European countries. They want permission to punish and dismiss all.

Tory MPs loudly deplore the Iranian government, whilst ignoring that Iranians are the third largest group of people coming here in the boats, running from the very state-sponsored violence to which the government objects. Without any safe way to leave the country, what else do they think those experiencing this terror will do? Continue to live in peril because a backbench Tory MP has tabled a parliamentary question? Their failure thus far to organise safe routes means that there are still Afghans who risked their lives for the UK stuck hiding from the Taliban, and Ukrainians still face delays and destitution coming here. These examples reflect how the experience of seeking refuge is rarely one of calm and order; you run because your life depends upon it and figure out the paperwork later, including which country is your final destination. The Refugee Convention recognises this, stating that anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed it and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

The Home Secretary claims upholding this principle raises the threat that billions will flee to the UK if this bill is not passed. Notwithstanding the reality of how few people developed nations help to safety in comparison to those countries located near to war zones, she raises a fair question – she just won’t answer it herself All the money being thrown at detention centres in France cannot cover up the fact that they aren’t talking to European leaders about being ‘overwhelmed’. Offering refuge to those facing harm becomes a fair numbers game when there’s a common commitment to act, yet there is no sign that this government has ever tried to work with other nations to share the responsibility. All the while the boats, lorries and traffickers still come.

Above all, this bill shouldn’t say illegal in the title because it does nothing to tackle those smuggling people across the English Channel. The government argues that criminalising those on the boats will deter them from trying to travel to the UK through an irregular route, failing to understand that the risk of deportation is still less dangerous than the potential death sentence of staying in a country where you are at risk. Given convictions for people-smuggling have halved in the last four years, if ministers had wanted to achieve change, the bill could have set up the taskforce needed to prosecute those who help the smugglers. It could have sought parliamentary approval for the data-sharing and cooperation we need with the European Union to address modern slavery, rather than trying to gaslight those who are victims of it. It could even have tackled those who overstay their visas – something that is clearly illegal – but the word visa isn’t mentioned in the bill at all.

In a world so uncertain, and so liable to crisis and conflict and the movement of people as a result, those at the sharp end of these trends are not the difficulty. It is our persistent inability to effectively process claims from those in need of help and prosecute those who exploit others that is the problem. Given that so much of this bill is simply the Nationality and Borders Act restated, wasting parliamentary time on it just so the Home Secretary can say its title ahead of a general election is a failure of political planning that we shouldn’t be afraid to call out. Rather than using unparliamentary language as you listen to the Home Secretary on TV, when it comes to refugees it’s time to speak up for democratic words – and deeds – that matter.

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