A person is not an asylum seeker out of choice. A person is an asylum seeker out of necessity; out of an urgent need for protection from serious human rights abuses in another country.
Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently working its way through Parliament, seeks to add to the misery that asylum seekers have endured. It punishes rather than protects. It rejects rather than accepts. It discriminates rather than welcomes.
The Bill will introduce a two-tiered asylum system that separates people into two distinct categories: the deserving and undeserving. The deserving will be those fortunate enough to gain a place on an official resettlement programme, as they will be afforded full refugee protection. The undeserving will be those who arrive via so-called ‘irregular’ routes such as deeply perilous Channel crossings, as they will be criminalised, rejected, and subject to removal to any country that will accept them.
It is difficult to comprehend the rationale behind a piece of legislation that forces even greater suffering on people fleeing persecution. However, understanding the mechanics of the Bill is crucial in tackling it. For justice and compassion to prevail, the extent of its inhumanity must be exposed.
The Bill is underpinned by the deplorable concept that only asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via official resettlement programmes are worthy of protection. This is as factually incorrect as it is immoral. For several reasons, only a tiny fraction of the world’s asylum seekers are able to access a resettlement programme. Making any type of formal application is often impossible when fleeing persecution, as is accessing a refugee camp from which a programme can be participated in.
Many of the refugees in northern France, for example, have already been turned away from overcrowded camps in which they may have been able to join such a programme. So by taking the stance that anyone who travels to the UK via alternative means should be ignored, the government is turning its back on the vast majority of people in need of protection.
Outside of these programmes, there is a glaring absence of safe and legal routes available, necessitating highly dangerous journeys in pursuit of safety. Just two weeks ago, 27 people tragically died in the Channel because they had no other option than to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane in a dinghy. Yet policymakers have taken the view that, rather than paving the way for asylum seekers to reach the UK safely, what is instead needed is for them to be treated with utter contempt and forced into even greater hardship.
Any ‘irregular’ arrivals will have their claims deemed ‘inadmissible’ and will therefore be subject to removal. This undermines the entire principle of refugee protection, which states that need should be the only determining factor in who is granted asylum. By making the method of entry the determining factor, the UK is abdicating its commitment to international law and sending out the very dangerous signal that some asylum seekers are worthier than others.
In addition, the plan is predicated on third country deals that do not exist. As it stands, not a single country has entered into a bilateral agreement with the UK regarding the return of asylum seekers, so this element of the Bill equates to a grandiose yet empty statement designed to reassure the public that the fictitious ‘migrant crisis’ is under control.
If the government is unable to find a willing country within a six-month window, the person will have their claim assessed in the usual fashion.
However, even if need is established, they will be granted a temporary status that restricts access to public funds and makes it impossible to rebuild their life. The status will last just 30 months, at which point it must be reapplied for at considerable effort and cost, leaving the applicant at huge risk of becoming undocumented.
It is important to reflect on the sinister nature of this approach. As well as using the method of entry as a reason for denying protection, it will also be the reason for providing a lesser form of protection to those who require it.
This temporary form of protection entails the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition, leaving the holder cut off from vital statutory support and at immense risk of destitution. NRPF, which already affects millions of people in the UK, will be imposed on approximately 3,100 more people each year as a result of the Bill. There is already a body of evidence showing that refugees with full protection—and therefore access to public funds—frequently encounter destitution following the approval of their claim, so for those with a temporary status, it will prove impossible to avoid.
One of the central claims behind the Bill is that it will help integrate those who are resettled. But in reality, nothing could be less conducive to integration than being cemented into poverty and denied the ability to live with dignity.
Another harrowing aspect of the Bill is the provision it makes for housing asylum seekers in so-called ‘reception centres’ during the determination of their claim. In actual fact, this accommodation is likely to be large, institutional-style accommodation similar to Napier Barracks, which was unlawfully used to house asylum seekers under purported Covid-19 rules.
The use of this accommodation will exacerbate feelings of isolation and anxiety among people who are already fleeing persecution and in many cases attempting to overcome psychological trauma. For integration to be possible, it is essential that refugees are housed in local communities where they can have control over their lives.
The introduction of severe sentences for ‘irregular’ entry is a key cornerstone of the Bill. Despite the government’s assertion that the measures will target people smugglers, it is innocent people fleeing persecution who will pay the price.
Anyone who arrives in the UK without entry clearance—a category that includes almost all asylum seekers not on a resettlement programme—will be guilty of a criminal offence and the maximum sentence will be increased to four years’ imprisonment.
The government has already begun using legal measures previously intended solely for organised criminals—such as drone footage that identifies a person with their hand on the tiller of a small boat at sea—to prosecute asylum seekers, even though there is no evidence to suggest they are members of a smuggling gang. As with much of the Bill, the measure will fail to achieve its purported aim—tackling people smugglers—and will instead heap further misery on people who urgently need help.
Britain’s relationship with asylum is in many ways defined by hostility, but this legislation plumbs new depths. It places callousness where there should be compassion, and suffering where there should be sanctuary. It is an affront to humanity, and everything possible must be done to halt its progression through Parliament.