In the last week before the summer recess, the Nationality and Borders Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Commons – a two-day debate, after which MPs voted for it to pass through to its next parliamentary stage in the autumn.
What did we learn from the Second Reading, and what should MPs reflect on?
Right to asylum under threat
First, we know that support for the bill is far from universal, and the arguments for it remain weak. The Government has framed the new proposals as being a key way to stop smuggling gangs from operating across Europe. Yet, no one has been able to explain how reducing the rights of people claiming asylum in the UK will do that.
Some MPs were also keen to state repeatedly that those seeking protection should make an asylum claim in the first safe country they arrive in, or at the very least, France. This is both a misunderstanding of the international legal framework, and a proposal that in effect says the UK should withdraw from basic principles of asylum that are recognised around the world.
As the former Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May said, the Refugee Convention does not state that an individual must make a claim in the first safe country.
As the European country furthest west from many conflict zones and sites of persecution, the UK already received many fewer asylum seekers than other countries in the region. Stating that people should only claim in the first safe country would mean that the UK receives almost no asylum seekers, and in doing so would be turning its back on the longstanding system of international protection.
By this logic, the vast majority of asylum claims would have to be made in Greece or Italy, as the most common entry points to Europe. This is simply not viable and does not share the responsibility for refugee protection.
It is both harsh and unrealistic to suggest that a refugee who arrives irregularly (e.g. without a valid visa) should be accorded fewer rights. Anyone can recognise that people fleeing danger and dictatorship will not be in a position to apply for permission to travel to the UK and they will not be deterred from making that journey.
Not only would that be a denial of our basic human obligations, it would signal to other countries that they can do the same, undermining the very concept of asylum.
Fewer safe routes
The second thing that was notable in the debate was how we heard about the UK’s past important role in global refugee protection, but not about its future. There is no doubt that we should be proud of the UK’s resettlement record since 2015, as well as the thousands of refugees who have been reunited in that time through our refugee family reunion rules.
But those successes can’t obscure the fact that the laws that MPs are currently discussing would reduce the numbers of people who could be reunited with family, and contain no new commitment on resettlement. Resettlement numbers will have dropped by 40% when compared to the 5,000 per year that were resettled from 2015-2020.
Finally, there was ongoing unease about criminalising those who enter the UK irregularly, for the purpose of seeking asylum. The proposed four-year prison sentence in such circumstances is cruel and authoritarian, but would also cost the UK hundreds of millions more than the current asylum system.
We should not forgot the shocking scenes of children separated from their parents at the American border when Donald Trump followed his own similar plan. At that time – only three years ago – the UK condemned the policy. Now it is pursuing one that would have similar consequences.
The Bill may have passed this first stage but that doesn’t mean that we stop fighting and when Parliament returns there will be more opportunities to prevent the Bill becoming law in its current form.
In the meantime, please share this blog and follow us on social media. Let’s continue to spread the truth about this Anti-Refugee Bill.