Thousands of people fleeing extreme situations of war and persecution will now find it harder to find safety in the UK and could face years in prison as a result of new legislation that has been voted through by MPs this week.
Nine months after it was first debated in Parliament, the Nationality and Borders Bill has now become law. Despite strong resistance in the House of Lords, which saw the Government defeated over thirty times on different votes, peers were eventually forced to concede and allow the Bill to pass before the end of the parliamentary session.
From the moment of its introduction, a huge range of voices have condemned this legislation and called for an alternative approach. Charities who work with refugees every day have shown how criminalising asylum and creating two tiers of refugees is wrong in principle, does nothing to address the reason why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the UK, and is out of step with the British public.
There are many ways in which these inhumane policies will devastate the lives of men, women and children who have already endured unimaginable pain and suffering. Our analysis lays bare these brutal truths: that more than 19,000 people fleeing war, conflict and bloodshed could face years in prison in Britain at extortionate cost to the public purse – to the tune of a staggering £835m every year.
Those who arrive without a visa to claim asylum will have their right to refugee family reunion restricted, despite tens of thousands of mostly women and children having been reunited with loved ones in the UK in recent years. Rather than reducing Channel crossings, this is likely to see more people making dangerous journeys so they can live again with their family.
Lawyers and UNHCR have condemned the Bill as being incompatible with the Refugee Convention despite Government claims to the contrary, and just this week the Government had to U-turn on its pushbacks policy following a legal challenge.
Many of the measures in the Bill are based on the Australian model of ‘offshoring’, yet NGOs and others from that country have shown that that approach did not actually stop boat crossings. Even the top official at the Home Office has cast doubts on whether Government’s new proposals to process asylum claims in Rwanda will act as a deterrent.
We know there is an alternative approach, that seeks a future with refugee protection at its heart. The UK should defend the fundamental right to claim asylum, however you arrive in the country. That means properly resourcing decision-making so that claims are decided in a reasonable time and allowing people to work and support themselves while they await a decision.
At the same time, more safe routes are needed so that refugees from all conflicts can rebuild their lives in the UK. The Government rightly praises the incredible public support for those fleeing war in Ukraine, yet for children facing bombs in Yemen, or Uyghurs fleeing genocide and desperately seeking safety, there are no humanitarian routes to safety here.
Although the main parliamentary process is now complete, we are not defeated and the fight for better refugee protection in the UK is far from over. The measures in the Bill do not come into force overnight, and much of the detail remains unclear. Refugee Council will be seeking to limit the harm of the bill, as well as monitoring and evidencing its impact to highlight its failings. We will be closely monitoring the impact of the Bill on people seeking sanctuary in the UK and powerfully showing how it will fail to deliver the fixes to the broken asylum system that the Government says it will deliver.
We know that many measures in the Bill are deeply unpopular, and there will be future opportunities to stop them being implemented. Councils should consider refusing to allow accommodation centres to be set up in areas where they are in power, and we will continue to use every opportunity to put pressure on the Home Office on other elements of the bill.
Australian campaigners have had good success in stopping companies from participating in the offshore asylum process, and organisations in the UK are seeking to learn from them. In addition, there are certain to be legal challenges to the legislation, and people who specialise in refugee and asylum law are already preparing the ground for that.
The incredible efforts of refugee campaigners across the UK have demonstrated that the public want a fair and efficient asylum system, and the work to achieve that is not over.
The next step is to increase that support and make it louder and stronger, so that change becomes inevitable.