As the Nationality and Borders Bill leaves the House of Commons, what next for refugee protection? - Refugee Council
December 9, 2021

As the Nationality and Borders Bill leaves the House of Commons, what next for refugee protection?

The Nationality and Borders Bill was voted through by MPs this week and will start being debated in the House of Lords early next year.

Despite the best efforts of refugee advocates, this hugely destructive piece of legislation has passed through the House of Commons largely unchanged.

This means that under current plans, the Government intends to reduce the leave and family reunion rights of most new refugees, and criminalise many people making asylum claims.

They will also house increasing numbers of people seeking asylum in inappropriate and unsuitable reception centres, and try to process asylum claims offshore, despite the large body of evidence showing how damaging this approach would be.

For refugee children, they also intend to change the way that their age is assessed, removing safeguards in that area, and introducing unproven and intrusive ‘scientific methods’.

There were some small positive moments too. Two changes since the start of the bill have been the confirmation that the Royal National Lifeboat Institute will not be criminalised for helping people at sea, and the Immigration Minister stating that unaccompanied children will not have their asylum claims processed overseas.

How is it then, that lawmakers can so casually vote for such damaging changes to the asylum system? The bill’s advocates argue that the whole package is about stopping dangerous small boat journeys across the British Channel, and with it, tacking the business model of people smugglers.

Sadly, these claims are not based in reality. No evidence has been presented to show that treating refugees poorly will reduce these journeys, and the example from Australia showed that boat crossings did not reduce as a result of offshore processing.

Furthermore, reducing the rights of people seeking asylum in the UK will have no bearing on smugglers – who operate across Europe and therefore require cooperation across the continent. Almost nothing in the bill is directed at smugglers themselves, but instead at vulnerable refugees.

The rhetoric throughout much of the bill process has spoken about tackling smuggling, while blaming those fleeing persecution. As one MP put it in reference to the failings of the UK’s asylum system, and its backlogs:

“The Government’s argument is the equivalent of blaming patients for NHS waiting lists. It is unacceptable and it is wrong.”

Fortunately, scrutiny of the bill is far from over. As increasing numbers of parliamentarians become concerned about the legality of the measures, the opposition is growing. Throughout the drafting of the legislation, the Government has also been keen to reiterate its support for safe and legal routes, yet many people have noted that the bill does nothing to increase safe routes.

Alongside opposing the negative changes in the bill, voices are growing louder for an increased commitment to refugee resettlement, and more family reunion routes.

Those are realisable aims in 2022, but the support of all defenders of refugee protection will be vital to achieve them.