Last week, Priti Patel sanctioned the use of controversial pushback tactics by Border Force in the channel. The decision will allow Border Force vessels to manoeuvre dinghies out of British waters and leave people to meet their fates in the middle of the English Channel. Pushing people to their likely deaths at sea may seem like an incomparably inhumane idea for the UK government to be pushing in 2021, but, along with proposing shipping people 4000 miles away to opening up asylum camps on oil rigs, it’s just one in a long line of extreme and increasingly absurd plans touted as ways to keep refugees out. These ideas may sound like pie-in-the-sky thinking, but the government is currently attempting to bake some of these dangerous proposals into law.
Draconian new asylum plans are being advanced in the shape of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which continues its progress through Parliament this month. Also dubbed the “anti-refugee Bill”, this legislation will create a two-tier asylum system that distinguishes between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ refugees based on their means of arrival. If you are one of the few arriving via a limited ‘resettlement’ scheme you will be granted rights and protection. However, if you’re one of the vast majority of refugees who get to the UK via other routes, you face prison-like asylum camps, deportation and even jail.
MPs just voted on Priti Patel's horrific Nationality and Borders Bill.
It criminalises boats rescuing people at sea and attacks refugee rights, violating our 70-year commitment to the Refugee Convention.
I voted against it. Not a single Tory MP did the same. Heartless.
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) July 20, 2021
These violent proposals are in response to an imaginary crisis, relying on falsehoods around the illegality of channel crossings and threatening to remove or criminalise refugees who arrive here ‘without permission’. The legislation, which threatens to return people to countries they’ve passed through for example, plays into the myth that you must seek asylum in the ‘first safe country you reach’ – a claim for which there exists no legal standing. The notion of returning people to countries they pass through completely ignores the fact that most people making desperate journeys across the channel have valid reasons to do so – like rejoining family here – and are eventually granted protection in the UK.
The Bill also threatens people who’ve fled here via boat or other unofficial means with four years in prison. Not only does this breach Article 31 of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which recognises irregular routes as a necessary part of most asylum seekers’ journeys, but it also ignores the reality of refugees’ lives.
This political frenzy over a fictional ‘migrant crisis’, which grounds itself in myth not reality, is nothing new. Two decades ago, former Home Secretary David Blunkett was claiming that Britain was being ‘swamped’ by migrants, suggesting asylum seekers wear electronic tags, and urging Afghan refugees to return to their newly ‘free’ country to rebuild it. From 2008 to 2020, the UK did in fact send 15,000 Afghans back on the grounds that their country was allegedly now safe. Some of those deported were murdered at the hands of the Taliban, others faced destitution and relentless fear for their lives.
Today, age-old scaremongering over migrants and refugees is manifesting as a moral panic over channel crossings, with politicians and journalists falsely branding those crossing ‘illegal’ and whipping up hysteria around numbers. These aspersions are not grounded in any kind of reality. Asylum applications have in fact been in sharp decline over the course of 2020, and making an irregular journey to claim asylum is a right enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. The facts simply don’t matter to our governments, though.
Inevitably, people who fear for their lives will flee via any means available to them. If your life was being threatened by the Taliban right now, would you wait around to fill in a form and stand in a queue that doesn’t even exist yet? Or would you pack your bags and flee in whatever way you could, even if this meant putting your life in the hands of a smuggler?
Given the reality of conflict and the urgency of many refugee journeys, it’s perhaps unsurprising that two thirds of UK refugees make their own way here, via unofficial routes. Patel’s new Borders Bill ignores this inconvenient reality and instead bases its proposals on pure fantasy.
Alongside new powers to criminalise refugees, the new Borders Bill would also allow government to massively expand the asylum camp estate, both within the UK and abroad. Government has confirmed that Napier Barracks was one of the pilots for this system and it does not paint a pretty picture of what could happen next. People seeking asylum were housed 20 plus to a dorm, left in cold, squalid, prison-like conditions, and as the pandemic raged, almost 200 residents caught Covid-19, with a judge later ruling such an outbreak ‘inevitable’. However, despite warnings from Public Health England and a High Court ruling against Napier Barracks, the government intend to house asylum seekers there until 2025 and use the site as a blueprint for other mass asylum camps.
Taking inspiration from Australia, the Home Secretary also plans to establish these camp-style asylum sites abroad. If such schemes go ahead, it would mean vulnerable people being shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles away, far from access to justice, community support or public view. In Australia’s Nauru camp, it meant people being forced to live in open-air prisons for years while their claims were processed, with child abuse, suicide attempts and neglect hidden away from public scrutiny. You would think these recent human rights disasters would be a red flag to government; instead Patel is making them a key plank of her Borders Bill.
Even for those who are granted refugee status here, having traversed the tortuous system of mass asylum camps, attempted removal, and imprisonment, the Borders Bill will continue to punish them. Under the new rules, refugees who came to the UK via unofficial means will have to prove they have a right to be here every 30 months, enjoy limited rights to family reunion, and be restricted from full access to financial support. So after potentially navigating a cruel and complex asylum system for years, once you are granted refugee status, this government would only treat you as ‘temporary’ and prevent you from fully settling and rebuilding your life here.
Right now, as refugee centres fill up with donations, and spare room offers fly in, the Bill’s attack on asylum and refugee rights seems bizarre. Most people want to see those fleeing conflict and persecution offered safety and support. From Glasgow to Folkestone, many communities are supporting and standing with their migrant neighbours, and opposing the government’s racist Borders Bill. We should stand alongside them, fight this Bill, and demand a system that welcomes and supports those seeking safety here.
Nadia Hasan is the communications officer for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.