In July of 2021, the Nationality and Borders Bill was introduced to Parliament. It contained provisions about nationality, asylum, immigration, victims of slavery and human trafficking. At Refugee Council, we focused specifically on elements of this new borders Bill that related to refugees and people seeking asylum.
The Government stated that the reforms in the Bill were about saving lives and breaking the economic model of people smugglers. However, these claims were not supported by evidence, nor did they properly take into account key context and detail about the asylum system.
On 27 April 2022, the inhumane Nationality and Border Bill became an Act of law. We know the British public want an asylum system that is fair, orderly and humane—this is evident from the outpouring of welcome shown to people fleeing Ukraine and Afghanistan. The Government is out of step with the people, and through this harmful Act is demonstrates its prioritisation of control over compassion and competence.
Later in 2022, the Government introduced the Rwanda policy and as of January 2023, there are plans to legislate further. The Government’s stated intention is to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats to seek asylum. However, there has been a complete failure to offer safe routes, such as humanitarian or asylum visas that would prevent the need for many people to make these dangerous crossings.
We know a different future is possible. A future where refugees are protected not punished.
How and when did the Nationality and Borders Bill become an Act of law?
On 27 April 2022 the inhumane Nationality and Border Bill became an Act of law. It went through all the stages of the parliamentary process culminating in royal assent. While amendments were suggested to the Bill, particularly in the House of Lords. Ultimately, the House of Commons held firm on passing the Bill.
How will the new rules for asylum affect refugees arriving in the UK? What is in the new Act?
Some of the most brutal changes that will have a detrimental impact on refugees emanate from the introduction of a discriminatory two-tier system of refugee protection.
Find out more about Clause 11 and the differential treatment of refugees through a two tier-system.
Other provisions that could have a significant negative impact on refugees arriving in the UK are proposals for ‘offshore processing’, the use of ‘reception centres’, criminalisation of people seeking asylum and the age assessment of young people.
In practice, this has resulted in the Rwanda plan, which would see people seeking asylum sent to Rwanda. The intention is that people seeking asylum sent to Rwanda would never return to the UK. Although flights were boarded for Rwanda in 2022, as of January 2023, no one has been removed to Rwanda due to ongoing legal action.
The provisions of the Act relating to refugees and the asylum system focus heavily on penalising refugees who travel to the UK through ‘irregular’ means. However, the Government could, and should, do more to provide safe routes to the UK for people wishing to seek protection here. If refugees have access to safe routes, they will use them.
As such, we continue to call on the Government to increase safe routes to the UK for refugees and their families.
Why do refugees risk their lives crossing the Channel? Will the Act help stop deaths in the Channel?
Our analysis shows that the men, women and children who come across the Channel in small boats are likely to be allowed to remain in the UK as refugees, with six in ten of those arriving being deemed to be refugees. This calls into question the Government and Home Office’s narrative that the majority of people crossing the Channel are NOT in genuine need of protection.
The reality is that people who come to the UK by taking terrifying journeys in small boats across the Channel do so because they are desperately seeking safety having fled persecution, terror and oppression. Their lives have been turned upside down through no fault of their own and they are exploited by callous people smugglers.
Rather than tougher measures that seek to punish and push away, or inaccurate and false statements that seek to dehumanise people who cross the Channel, we call on the Government show compassion by welcoming those who need refugee protection rather than seeking to cruelly push them back across the channel or punish them with imprisonment.
The Government has claimed that two of its key objectives with the Act are to break up smuggling gangs, while also increasing ‘safe and legal routes’ for refugees to reach the UK. Unfortunately, nothing in the Bill will do either of these things.
What is 'offshore processing'?
The Act has made changes to the law that enable the Government to transfer people to a third country where their asylum claim will be processed ‘offshore’. If enacted, this approach would signal a deeply worrying departure from the UK’s previous approach of giving people who seek protection a fair hearing on British soil.
Offshore processing is inhumane. In Australia, not only has it been proven to be incredibly expensive and ineffective, but it has had a devastating impact on the mental health of people seeking asylum, with very high rates of self-harm and suicide.
Sending people seeking asylum offshore (most likely to less developed countries) undermines the Refugee Convention. It also shifts the UK’s obligations elsewhere, setting a dangerous precedent, which if other developed countries followed, would see the majority of people seeking asylum being sent to countries that have far less resources and infrastructure to support them.
What are 'age assessments'? What do they mean for children and young people seeking asylum here?
Over many decades working with unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK, Refugee Council has repeatedly seen children incorrectly identified as adults. This has led to vulnerable children being housed with adults, and losing access to schooling, social care, and other support. Our Age Disputes Project works with hundreds of young people every year to challenge and overturn these incorrect decisions.
The Nationality and Borders Act included an amendment regarding people seeking asylum whose age is disputed. The clauses that the Government voted to include in the Act enable new methods of assessing the age of an unaccompanied child, including ‘examining and measuring parts of a person’s body’ and ‘the analysis of saliva, cell or other samples taken from a person’. These plans are not supported by the scientific community and are likely to lead to more children being incorrectly identified as adults, losing the support they need and exposing them to risk.
Ultimately there is no perfect method to assess age, but Government must retain safeguards to protect children who come to the UK seeking protection, and who have often experienced deep trauma.
Will people seeking asylum be housed in reception centres? What does that mean?
The Government is proposing to build ‘reception centres’ to hold people who have made an asylum claim in the UK. Our understanding is that these centres will involve ‘congregated living’ in hostel-type accommodation, which has been shown to be unsuitable to house people in the asylum system for long periods of time.
Throughout the pandemic we were horrified by the shameful conditions refugees have experienced in barracks and hotel accommodation. Building reception centres for people seeking asylum looks like a continuation of this plan. Instead, we should be welcoming people seeking asylum into our communities and supporting them to integrate.
Organisations like Doctors of the World have expressed concern about access to healthcare in these settings; as they are commonly in remote areas, this kind of support becomes more difficult. Currently, Government has failed to explain how it will secure the health and wellbeing of those housed in these centres, despite the fact those entering asylum system are more likely to suffer poor physical and mental health.
Proposals to extend these forms of accommodation are ill-thought out and dangerous, and undermine the UK’s duties to support and protect those making asylum claims.
The current dispersal system, whereby people seeking asylum live in regular housing in the community, is much better for supporting future integration and ensuring that people seeking asylum are able to access services they need.