A moral and ethical debate has been stirred across the UK in the wake of the Nationality and Borders Bill that passed the House of Commons in December 2021 and is currently in the Committee Stage in the House of Lords. The bill drastically redesigns the UK’s asylum system by implementing catastrophic barriers for accessing humanitarian assistance and resources.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, the primary force behind the bill, claims “the reforms are aimed at fixing the UK’s ‘broken’ asylum system”. Labelling the asylum system as ‘broken’, while frequently repeated, is not only a misleading narrative, but also plays upon and perpetuates the continually deepening political, social, educational, racial, religious, and cultural divides that have become entrenched in the fabric of British politics.
Meanwhile, Scottish National Party home affairs spokesperson, Stuart McDonald MP, has called for the bill to be scrapped completely. “This really is one of the cruellest policies I’ve seen come out of the Home Office […] they are defending criminalising torture victims, victims of war crimes, persecuted Christian converts, and other refugees for seeking our protection”.
The measures proposed in the bill put people directly in harm’s way by forcing them to remain in dangerous situations while they go through a lengthy asylum claim, criminalising existing methods for claiming asylum after arrival in the United Kingdom, or even pushing people arriving in the Channel back out to sea.
A false narrative on migration
Right-wing voices like Home Secretary Patel portray large-scale migration and increasing numbers of refugees as a new-age crisis facilitated by globalisation. The truth is that individuals, families and even entire communities have long been fleeing danger and will continue to do so as long as there is hardship to flee. To that end, the looming climate crisis has and will continue to exacerbate living conditions in the Global South.
Another popular misconception is that there are differentiated ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ ways to seek asylum; this is false. There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to seek asylum in a country that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention (which includes the UK). The Convention recognises that people fleeing danger may have to use ‘irregular’ means to escape. This basic and foundational premise of the Convention would be scrapped by the Home Office’s proposed legislation.
Unfortunately, politicians like Patel reiterate common misconceptions in a deliberate effort to manipulate the public’s understanding and to justify their own ideological stances. While this is easily ignored as ‘politicians being politicians’, the ruling elite is wilfully putting vulnerable people – mostly coming from the Global South – in increasing danger by creating a broad level of public and political resentment towards refugees. The results of this can already be seen, with an uptick in hate crimes against refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
Impact of the Nationality and Borders Bill
The proposed legislation is a complete overhaul of an already controversial system, “with the stated aims of making the immigration system fairer and more efficient whilst being strict on illegal immigration and tackling people smuggling”.
The measures proposed by the bill tell a different story.
This bill seeks to introduce draconian measures and put vulnerable people in even greater peril by creating largely insurmountable barriers to accessing their fundamental human rights. For decades the UN Refugee Convention has meant safety and a chance at stability for the world’s most at-risk populations; indisputably creating the protections for asylum seekers that are now under threat.
The proposed legislation “is based on the idea that people should claim asylum in the ‘first safe country’ they arrive in”, which may sound unextraordinary to some, until we understand that the first ‘safe countries’ are often not safe at all. They are often impoverished themselves, and systemically unable to support their citizens, much less the number of people crossing their borders in times of crisis.
As it stands today, almost 9 in 10 of the world’s refugees live in neighboroughing lower-income countries. The UK’s new policy would further strain the resources of such countries, undermine global solutions, and exacerbate high refugee death tolls.
Refugee flows and migration patterns are not localised problems with localised solutions; they are the consequence of global events, and therefore require cooperation across borders to avoid humanitarian crises such as people dying while on the move.
Alarming Measures Proposed by the Bill
Under the new legislation, “any person arriving in the UK without permission can be prosecuted” by up to four years in prison, including asylum seekers. This is an affront to the global asylum system, as it runs contrary to the way seeking asylum operates on a global scale by criminalising the standard practice of application upon arrival.
This change in the application process exposes asylum seekers to prosecution for simply arriving before submitting their asylum claim, and this could easily result in avoidable deaths. Having to submit an asylum claim before fleeing would require refugees to navigate a lengthy bureaucratic process from within the violence they are trying to flee. This move would essentially gut the asylum system, a prospect this government seems happy to see realised.
Another alarming rule change proposed by the bill is the rendering of claims “from anyone arriving in the UK by an ‘illegal’ route inadmissible”. This would include, for example, people arriving by small boats across the Channel. In addition to the proposed jail time, people found guilty of this act could have no access to public funds and see have their family members barred from joining them.
According to a legal opinion led by human rights QC Raza Husain, “This bill represents the biggest legal assault on international refugee law ever seen in the UK.”
Anyone arriving to the UK under complicated circumstances could be deemed to have entered ‘illegally’, which would then invalidate their asylum claim. An invalidated claim could make it impossible to gain protected refugee status and result in either imprisonment or deportation back to the danger they were fleeing in the first place.
A rising number of desperate people have been making the journey through the English Channel, the busiest shipping route in the world, in little more than inflatable rafts. Many have tragically died in recent months. The bill proposes “to amend the offence of helping an asylum seeker to enter the UK by removing the requirement of facilitating ‘for gain’” aspect.
Anyone “who knowingly facilitates the arrival, or attempted arrival, of an asylum seeker, will be guilty of an offence and subject to life imprisonment“.
Arguably the most overtly authoritarian aspect of the bill, this would criminalise anyone who rescues a drowning asylum seeker while simultaneously providing Border Force staff with legal immunity from conviction should people on the move die in the Channel as a result of ‘pushback’ operations.
The events in the Channel are nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. People fleeing danger from countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria are already forced to turn to increasingly dangerous methods to reach the safety of the UK, due to the systemic barriers that exist within the asylum system. The proposed changes would double down on these barriers, in all likelihood resulting in more people losing their lives.
This specific set of policy changes is the crux of hypocrisy. This bill was born out of supposed outrage at people dying in the English Channel. Yet it effectively creates a lethal loophole in the law that would perpetuate and systemically incentivise leaving asylum seekers to die …in the Channel.
The Question of Citizenship
Another element of the bill garnering media attention centres around the stripping of British citizenship. Due to a quietly added proposal, millions of citizens could be stripped of their British citizenship without warning.
As it stands today, a citizen must be notified of the change in their citizenship status and has the opportunity to appeal. The new clause would remove the need for notification in a range of circumstances, and would appear to allow for the stripping of citizenship retrospectively, in cases where the individual was stripped of their citizenship without notice before the clause became law.
The bill strengthens existing controversial measures used to strip British-born dual nationals, primarily ethnic minorities, of their British citizenship. This is a tactic most often implemented against British Muslims while abroad.
Removing someone’s British citizenship has in fact been possible for over a 100 years, but was only ever meant to be used as a very last resort, and reserved exclusively for the most dangerous of criminals. Today the threshold has dropped dramatically: since 2006 the Home Secretary has had the power to strip someone of their citizenship if it is deemed to be ‘conducive to the public good’. The stripping of citizenship is meant to be rare, yet in recent years there have been over 100 cases per year.
The bill places refugees and asylum seekers in the crosshairs yet again. If there is a legal precedent for allowing someone’s citizenship to be revoked without notification, then revoking someone’s protected status without notification is in the same boat of authoritarian powers.
The asylum system is not overwhelmed by demand. The number of people seeking asylum in the UK is drastically lower than its peak during the early 2000s, and is also at lower levels than in Germany or France. This bill threatens to put already defenceless people in an even worse situation, and sets a legal framework that could see people prosecuted and threatened under the false narrative of a ‘broken’ asylum system.
The bill would set a legal precedent for most refugees to be denied their rights given under the UN Refugee Convention, including the fundamental human rights to seek asylum and to family reunification. If passed into law, the new Nationality and Borders Bill would obliterate support for refugees by making it increasingly difficult to reach safety in the UK, breaking international human rights conventions, and exacerbating the danger for those crossing the Channel by sanctioning pushback measures.
If the bill is passed into law, it will, at a bare minimum, risk the lives of already vulnerable people, and in the all-too plausible worst case scenarios, people on the move would die due to the systemic barriers put in place under its proposed changes.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Article Image Credit: Flickr