By Martha Kean
The 1951 Refugee Convention internationally codified the rights of refugees; it was an essential piece of documentation then and it remains essential now. The core principle of the Refugee Convention is ‘non-refoulment, which maintains that a refugee should not be sent back to a country where their freedom and safety is seriously threatened (UNHCR). Concerningly, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill appears to undermine not only this key principle, but countless others. It is an explicit attack on the already-negligible rights of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
Currently, it is legal to seek asylum in the UK regardless of means of arrival. An asylum seeker who reaches UK shores on an overcrowded rubber dingy is as entitled to remain in the UK – whilst their asylum claim is processed – as someone who arrives through a family reunion scheme, for example.
Under the Nationality and Borders Bill, this would no longer be the case. Clause 10 of the document allows for ‘differential treatment of refugees’, which is to say that those who arrive via ‘illegal’ routes would, at the very least, have to justify their reasons for doing so. In worst case scenarios, the UK government could make it a criminal offence to enter the UK at all without an official permit – punishable by four years in jail.
Priti Patel repeatedly made the press this year for using ‘prison-like’ former army barracks to house asylum seekers, which quickly became hotbeds for COVID outbreaks and mental health crises. The Nationality and Borders Bill suggests that such accommodation could be used in the future in a punitive way – to house those who have come to the UK ‘unlawfully’. Needless to say, housing asylum seekers in such accommodation, who are likely to have been the most desperate to flee their home countries, and to have endured perilous journeys, is certainly not appropriate.
Opposing MPs such as Nick Thomas-Symonds have pointed out that the government do not even have the ‘competence to explain how their plans would work’. The most logical way to curb the use of ‘illegal’ routes to the UK, such as small boat crossings, is to strengthen and expand the legal ones available. The government shows no intention of doing so. In fact, the Dubs scheme was closed in 2020, after having accepted less than a sixth of the total number of unaccompanied children expected.
Additionally, aside from specific schemes, there are currently no concrete legal provisions that permit a person to come to the UK for the sole purpose of seeking asylum. Yet, the Home Office also explicitly states that no claim for asylum will be considered unless the person is already in the UK (Amnesty International). Seeking asylum ‘legally’ in the UK is almost an impossibility.
This Bill focuses not on reforming these illogical policies, but on furthering hard-line punishments and deterrents. It is clearly the product of a government that, in December 2020, genuinely considered creating a ‘giant wave machine’ to stop small boats crossing the channel. The same government who are still considering constructing an Australian-style ‘off-shore’ immigration centre on Ascension Island, a remote UK territory over 4000 miles away.
In 2020, Priti Patel declared the asylum system to be ‘broken’. Undeniably, this is true. But her plans for reform will only deepen the cracks in an already failing system; it will simply bring further danger and precarity to the lives of refugees and asylum seekers pursuing safety in the UK.
Image: Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons