The next stage of the Nationality and Borders Bill ended on Thursday, with a series of witnesses giving evidence to the committee of MPs who are examining the bill.
Like all legislation going through Parliament, these oral evidence sessions are designed to provide external context and detail, and are an opportunity for MPs to ask specific questions of witnesses before they then examine line-by-line the text of the bill.
Since the bill was last debated in Parliament, refugee policy has risen up the news agenda following the collapse of the Government in Afghanistan. The subsequent scenes of people desperately fleeing the Taliban has reasserted the importance of refugee protection, and put in context claims that people should only travel by safe, legal routes.
The first planned evidence session was due to feature officials from the Home Office and Border Force explaining the contents of the bill, but that session was cancelled at the last minute, with no explanation from Government.
This is deeply disappointing, both because it denied the opportunity for other witnesses to give evidence, but also because it gives the impression that the department is seeking to avoid scrutiny and is not prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.
Across the rest of the sessions, the committee heard from lawyers, charities, trade unionists, council leaders and others, many of whom were focused on the elements of the bill relating to the asylum system.
A number of witnesses agreed that plans to reduce the rights and entitlements of refugees who arrive irregularly in the UK were not only unfair and cruel towards vulnerable people, but would have no effect in stopping journeys to the UK.
UNHCR were also able to present their new legal opinion on the bill, and stated definitively that the bill does not comply with our interventions under the Refugee Convention, and that nothing in international law obliges a refugees to make an asylum claim in the first safe country they come to.
Dr. Lisa Doyle, Executive Director of Advocacy and Engagement at the Refugee Council, also gave evidence, and expressed our opposition to both the general approach and details of the bill. Putting it in the context of Afghanistan, she showed how the new rules would be a fundamental departure from accepted norms of refugee protection:
“It just seems incomprehensible that you would treat someone differently based on their mode of arrival, not because of their protection needs.
You could have this perverse situation where you have next-door neighbours from Afghanistan, one finding their way fortunately onto a formal resettlement route, the other one being forced to take the decision to make a dangerous journey.
[They would] then reach the UK shores, and get a different level of protection, and a different level of rights than their next-door neighbour, even though they would be fleeing the same persecution. “
No observer watching all of the evidence sessions this week could come away with confidence that the new bill is either just or workable. When the bill is next examined from mid-October, there will be opportunities to debate amendments to it, and to put forward a more positive vision of the asylum system.
On the basis of the evidence presented this week, the Government should welcome such changes. If they do not do that, we must be ready to come together to find other ways to stand up for the future of refugee protection.