The UK Nationality and Borders Bill

Last week, at least 27 people drowned in the English Channel when their boat sank off the coast of Calais. The international organisation for migration has announced this is the biggest single loss of life in the channel, since data was first collected in 2014. While the UK government was quick to issue statements rightfully condemning people-smuggling industries for facilitating such dangerous routes, this rhetoric (used time and time again) masks the deep-rooted issue of the government’s broken immigration policy. Trafficking exists because people are left without a safe alternative, and as we have seen over the last year, the UK has increasingly implemented punitive policies which perpetuate a binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ asylum seekers, and prevent many people from accessing safe pathways of migration. It is a system entrenched with criminalising narratives that ultimately dehumanise migrants. While the UK government pushes to externalise migration management, today we take a look at the brief history of migration policy within the UK’s borders and how the Nationality and Borders Bill could shape migration for years to come.

What is the nationality and borders bill and its repercussions?

The Nationality and borders bill is a proposed act of UK parliament that relates to wider Nationality laws, immigration and asylum. The bill has seen large swathes of criticism from the UN, humanitarian organisations, political activists and the general public as it reduces protections in a way that starkly contradicts international law. In repudiating its historical international obligation, the UK may provide an example to others to follow suit, which is of great concern as what the bill proposes will ultimately make the immigration system more dysfunctional and complex.  Below, the core facets of the Nationality and Borders Bill will be explored, and the consequence of which will be explained:

The bill seeks to redefine and restrict the meaning of the 1951 refugee convention, in terms of who is protected by the convention and how that person should be treated. In 1951, the UK signed up to the refugee convention which set out the rights of a refugee and how they would be defined. Beyond this, the convention outlined that there is no legal obligation for an asylum seeker to claim asylum and remain in the first safe country. If the bill is enacted, those who chose to continue their journey through a first safe country will be penalised, it would allow the government to define and disadvantage some refugees, denying them certain rights if they do not satisfy certain conditions provisioned by the Home Office. Penalties and exclusion can be enacted which are based on arbitrary requirements, which could leave asylum claims inadmissible and more easily refused. Fast tracked asylum processes may leave many without the time and emotional support to make effective claims, and many more asylum seekers will face isolation from the community in accommodation similar to detention. The bill would be a fundamental challenge to the shared principle of refugee protection and it may well create a two-tiered system where those who have not been able to access resettlement schemes will face expulsion or only temporary status with restricted access to reunification services. The bill also makes provisions for offshore processing, which would push asylum seekers to the periphery of society and is an extremely costly system.

While the Home Office claims the bill will relieve the number of asylum claims in the UK, it will ultimately increase the number of delays while leaving even more individuals in limbo. The impacts of the bill’s measures have been openly criticised and the UN Refugee Agency recently stated in response to the proposal that the ‘UNHCR is concerned that the plan, if implemented as it stands, will undermine the 1951 convention and international protection system, not just in the UK, but globally.’ A further worrying aspect of the bill is that it seeks to allow evidence to be given ‘minimal weight’ by asylum judges if it is submitted late without good reason. However, this perpetuates a culture of disbelief amongst deciding bodies as it dismisses the intricacies of building evidence particularly when dealing with traumatic experiences and a lack of knowledge around the UK legal system.

The proposed bill reflects the long-entrenched hostile stance taken by UK government against asylum seekers and migrants. In 2012, the Home Secretary at the time, Theresa May, announced a policy that tackled ‘illegal immigration’; through punitive policies that effectively engaged the British public in policing illegal migration and assessing individuals immigration statuses. Accessibility to welfare support was also tightened, heightening migrant vulnerability to homelessness. There has been a succession of policies across the period which target migration and curate a culture of mistrust and blame towards asylum seekers and migrants, it is only when this culture is dismantled that we can move away from such punitive policies. However, the UK government continues to pedal confusing and criminalising narratives around migration.

Last week’s tragedy in the Channel has fuelled further debate on how to stop the dangerous crossings. In the past, the Home Secretary Priti Patel has been quick to act as though the act of actually crossing the channel is ‘illegal’ rather than clarifying what asylum seekers rights are. While last week’s tragedy could have been met with a move towards compassionate politics, the solutions presented by the UK government have focused primarily on how to police and securitise British waters. Thus, it is imperative that humanitarian institutions, activists and politicians continue to highlight the dangers of the bill, in the hope that we can build a lasting compassionate community towards migrants and asylum seekers in the longer-term.