To stop further loss of life in the Channel, the Tories must back a safe passage visa

© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Next week, MPs will debate the government’s cruel new illegal migration bill. The legislation will make it impossible for some of the most vulnerable people to claim asylum in the UK, effectively banning asylum claims for anyone who hasn’t arrived in the country through one of the few bespoke schemes, such as Homes for Ukraine or the Afghanistan resettlement scheme. It will also grant the Home Secretary alarming new powers for the mass detention and deportation of asylum seekers.

The government claims that the deterrent effect will stop Channel crossings and break up people smuggling. However, we have ample evidence that deterrence does not work. Since 2018, 56 people have tragically drowned in the Channel – yet the number of dangerous crossings has risen. Even after the government’s Rwanda policy was announced and the Nationality and Borders Act passed into law, people continued to make these dangerous journeys.

Despite the government’s attempts to spin the illegal migration bill as humane and compassionate – that it will save lives by stopping boat crossings – the legislation will not have this effect. Instead, it has been condemned as a violation of the Refugee Convention.

To speak plainly, that’s because this isn’t about ‘stopping the boats’ or preventing loss of life. Indeed, Conservative activists have, in my view, been clear that it’s not about how people are coming to the UK – but that they are coming here at all. That’s why the government speaks in terms of border security, greater policing and stopping the boats; it’s meant as red meat to a section of people who are opposed to anyone seeking asylum, not as a serious attempt to help those fleeing war and persecution. What better example of this in the legislation than the cruelty of stripping away the modern slavery provisions for asylum seekers who have survived human trafficking?

We should reject this approach completely. At a time of intensifying climate and nature crises, increasing geopolitical polarisation and soaring food insecurity and famine, it is more vital than ever to defend the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention – for example, that asylum is a right and that asylum seekers deserve agency in choosing where they make their claim. Instead, the specific ‘safe route’ schemes for certain countries ministers deem worthy have already created a fundamental shift in who can claim asylum in the UK – a shift that needs robust challenge.

Next Monday, the government will have the opportunity to prove me wrong about their motives by supporting my amendment to the bill. Working with Care4Calais and the PCS union – two organisations at the frontline of the refugee crisis – I have tabled new clause 10. The amendment, tightly-focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Channel, Calais and elsewhere in Europe, would create a ‘safe passage’ visa, which gives entry clearance to those already in Europe wishing to come to the UK to make an asylum claim.

The Ukrainian visa schemes have been successful in preventing this group from using small boats to come here. We can learn from this and replicate it for others in need. Similarly, the application for a safe passage visa would be made online. Documents would be uploaded remotely or, where this is not possible, applicants would be able to visit visa centres across Europe to have their biometrics taken. If successful, the applicant would be sent an electronic letter that they could use to enter the UK.

The visa is highly focused and would allow travel to the UK from Europe to make an asylum claim. It therefore differs from humanitarian visa proposals for which more extensive screening and processing would take place before the claimant can travel to the UK. As the safe passage visa holder would travel to the UK to lodge a claim here, most of the screening and processing associated with an asylum claim would happen as normal in the UK.

Half of those who cross the Channel come from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan or Syria. Applications from these countries have a grant rate of at least 80%. Yet they are forced to use dangerous crossings because, currently, resettlement schemes are either non-existent or, in the case of the Afghan resettlement scheme, not fit for purpose. But just because no adequate scheme exists, it doesn’t mean those refugees are ineligible for protection under the Refugee Convention. The new illegal migration bill would deny them this opportunity due to their mode of arrival. Our safe passage visa would circumvent this and allow them to have their claim heard in the UK.

Ministers have a choice. They can go on demonising refugees, daubing ‘stop the boats‘ on government lecterns, chasing headlines and votes – all while the humanitarian crisis intensifies and people continue to drown in the Channel – or they can prove they are serious about ending the life-threatening crossings by dropping the securitised, ‘fortress Britain’ rhetoric and embracing a humane approach that will actually save lives. It’s time they backed a safe passage visa.

More from LabourList

Donate to fund our journalism


Subscribe to our Daily Email