As the latest Immigration Bill becomes law, our Parliamentary Manager Jon Featonby takes a look at what is, and what isn’t, in it.
As the Parliamentary Manager at the Refugee Council, it’s fair to say that over the last eight months the Immigration Bill has dominated much of my time. From decoding the proposed legislation to work out what its impact will be, to briefing parliamentarians on our concerns about the bill, to pouring over transcripts of the debates to scrutinise the Government’s arguments, it’s been a long process.
For most of those eight months the Bill has received fairly little public attention. This all changed with what became known as the Dubs Amendment. Proposed by Lord Alf Dubs, who himself came to the UK as part of the Kindertransport and who is also a former Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, the amendment called on the Government to take in 3,000 unaccompanied children from across Europe. After a lot of campaigning, the Government agreed to a slightly different version of the amendment, with the specific number of 3,000 taken out.
It’s great that the UK Government is finally going to offer protection to some of those refugees stranded across Europe. But as the Immigration Bill completes its progress through Parliament this week and becomes law, it’s a good time to take a step back and looking at what else is in this Bill, the vast majority of which is aimed at creating, in the Government’s own words, “a hostile environment” for migrants, including asylum seekers.
One of the impacts of the Bill that has been largely overlooked is a change in the type of status asylum seekers will have. Currently, while asylum seekers are waiting for a decision on their asylum application to be made, they are granted “temporary admission” to the UK. The Bill changes this. No longer will asylum seekers be temporarily admitted; instead they will be on “immigration bail”. We believe this is a completely inappropriate term to use for those seeking protection on our shores.
While there aren’t really any differences in the two terms practically, associating the process of applying for asylum with the criminal terminology of “bail” is unacceptable. And the fact that it doesn’t make any practical difference to the Home Office makes it even more distasteful.
The Bill will also strip away support for asylum seekers who have been unsuccessful in their asylum application. This will particularly hit asylum seeking families. Under the new law, asylum seekers with dependent families will have 90 days after they are refused by the Home Office to leave the country. After that, the financial support they receive, as well as any accommodation, will be removed. Originally, the Government wanted that period to be only 28 days, but increased it to 90 after parliamentarians were convinced it should be longer.
As many asylum seekers have been in the UK for several years, and may also be worried about their safety should they be returned, we are concerned that families will be left homeless and destitute. While there are some safeguards in place for people who can’t leave the UK for medical reasons or where there are other barriers, these aren’t defined in the Bill and only a few asylum seekers are likely to be eligible.
Another group who the Bill removes support from is unaccompanied children. In a move that is in stark contrast to the Dubs Amendment, the Bill will mean that, on turning 18, unaccompanied children seeking asylum will no longer be eligible to many forms of support from local authorities. Unaccompanied children are supported by local authorities and have access to the same services as other children in Britain who are in the care system.
But while the Government has been very proactive in ensuring that children leaving care at 18 continue to receive support to help them transition into adulthood, many who sought asylum will be excluded from this thanks to the Immigration Bill.
We also have concerns about the right to rent checks that were introduced in the last big piece of immigration legislation and which this Bill will roll out across the country. All landlords will have to check that potential tenants have permission to live in the UK. This will involved checking passports or other documents. This is far from straightforward, especially for refugees, many of who don’t have passports and instead have Biometric Residence Permits.
The trials that have been carried out of the policy have shown that landlords end up discriminating against people who they aren’t sure are definitely allowed to rent.
The Government have also missed a vital opportunity to respond more humanely to the refugee crisis. We, along with several other organisations, called on the Government to use the Bill as a chance to expand the criteria for refugee families to be reunited, providing people fleeing war and persecution with a safe and legal route to the UK.
Currently, refugees in the UK can apply for their spouses and dependent children to join them. This means that other family members, including children as young as 18, don’t qualify and so are left with having to take a dangerous, life threatening journey if they want to be reunited. We also wanted the Government to reverse its shameful policy of not allowing refugee children to apply for their parents to come and join them.
Unfortunately, the Government refused to listen to our arguments and those of many politicians, but we will continue to push them on this so that family members can be together just when they need one another the most.
Sadly, the Government also refused to accept an amendment to the Immigration Bill which would have allowed asylum seekers who have been waiting for longer than six months for a decision on their application to work. We have argued for a long time for asylum seekers to be allowed to work, so they aren’t reliant on Home Office support and can build up skills and experience for when they’re granted refugee status.
Yet the Government refused, arguing that it would create a “pull factor” but offering no evidence to support this flimsy claim.
There is a bit of good news to come out of the Bill, however. Following a lot of pressure from campaigners, MPs and Members of the House of Lords, the Government have made positive changes to the way immigration detention works. For the first time, people in immigration detention will automatically have their case looked at by a court after they’ve been in detention for four months.
And pregnant women will only be able to be detained for up to 72 hours (or a week if a Government Minister authorises it). We continue to believe that nobody should be detained for immigration purposes, particularly pregnant women, but these changes are a step in the right direction. Along with the Dubs Amendment, they also offer a glimmer of hope in what is otherwise a largely regressive and uncompassionate piece of legislation.