While the Tories claim that their authoritarian Bill will create a fairer system, in reality, it’ll only serve to harm the most vulnerable.

While the Tories claim that their authoritarian Bill will create a fairer system, in reality, it’ll only serve to harm the most marginalised and vulnerable, writes Leah Cowan.

The Nationality and Borders Bill introduced into the House of Commons this week makes for sobering reading. As a piece of legislation, it will enact Priti Patel’s New Plan for Immigration (announced in March this year), as well as a mixed bag of other unpalatable immigration policies. Perhaps the most heinous part of the Bill is it’s attempt to further criminalise border-crossing and remove safe routes for seeking asylum, in direct contravention of international conventions and law. 

The legislation fails to meaningfully address the structural issues facing those with an existing legal right to be in the country. For example, the Windrush scandal, which hit the headlines in 2018, shone a light on the sheer number of people who, despite having the right to live in this country, were caught up in the hostile environment and profiled for detention.

After being caught red-handed, the government did a tentative and performative U-turn on a select number of cases. The Bill is part of this continued PR dance. It contains a gesture which could have significant material impacts on people’s lives by waiving the five-year residence that someone from the Windrush generation must show to be granted citizenship in the UK after returning from being wrongly stranded abroad. It remains to be seen when and how the Secretary of State will exercise this power.

The meat of the legislation, encompassing most of the 87 pages of the Bill, includes some particularly poisonous proposals including the off-shoring of centres (prisons) for people claiming asylum. Quite literally, Priti Patel wants to ship people seeking sanctuary in the UK to oil rigs, shipping containers, and islands such as Ascension, which is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. What is particularly sinister about this specific proposal is that it riffs off the 2013 Australian model of off-shoring asylum hubs.

Most notable about the Australian set up, which includes centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and adjacent Nauru (described as a “national shame” by one of its former senior medical officers), is its notoriety for deaths of people incarcerated. The Refugee Council of Australia notes that people locked up in these ‘hubs’ die “mainly as a result of inadequate healthcare or by suicide”. This is the system Patel seeks to emulate.

The Bill claims that it sets out to “make the [asylum] system fairer and more effective”, to crackdown on trafficking by “[detering] illegal entry into the UK”, and to kick out people with “no right to be here”. To begin unpacking this, we have to start by wondering why a government that seems to lack compassion for anyone who is marginalised or vulnerable, including for example the 17,000 sick and disabled people who have died while waiting for welfare benefits, or the new parents with no recourse to public funds who are slapped with £10k bills for childbirth care, is so obsessed with people affected by trafficking and asylum. When it comes to assisting people who have crossed borders and faced persecution and labour exploitation, it doesn’t really seem likely that the government has that much skin in the game. So why is the government positioning itself as patron saints when it comes to people who are trafficked, in particular? 

The answer is quite complex, but Emily Kenway’s The Truth About Modern Slavery offers an astute explanation. In short: trafficking is a form of exploitation which falls under the broader umbrella term ‘modern slavery’. Modern slavery became popular as a term in British politics in the late 2000s, and was intentional in conjuring images of ‘historical’ slavery and (ostensibly white) abolitionists who are the protagonists of the story as it is told in British schools. In reality, the ‘modern slavery’ approach is, as Kenway writes, less about championing human rights, and more about “arrest, deport and eradicate”. 

A key example of this emerged in 2019, when we witnessed the term ‘trafficking’ being conveniently misapplied in public and political discourse. On the day that 39 Vietnamese people were found dead in a lorry container in Essex, Priti Patel made a speech in Parliament where she stated that the incident was “tragic” but also took the opportunity to champion border force, who “work tirelessly to secure our borders against a wide range of threats, including people trafficking”.

This is despite the fact that there could not yet have been enough accurate information about the people who died (who were initially described as Chinese in news reports) to ascertain if the incident met criteria for trafficking. According to the UN, trafficking must entail ‘the act’ of trafficking, the ‘means’ of trafficking such as threat or coercion, and the ‘purpose’ which is exploitation. 

A group of people who died trying to navigate the increasingly hardened borders of this country with a view of gaining sanctuary was not good optics for a government still reeling form Windrush. Seeking to control the narrative and distract from the violence of the border regime implemented by her government, Patel took the phrase ‘trafficking’ and ran with it. This gives context to how we arrive at a bill which purports to be ‘cracking down’ on the ‘villainy’ of trafficking without any real intention to address the global systems of inequality that leave taking a dangerous route into the country as a person’s most viable choice.

A non-controversial step to address one of the factors that make people more vulnerable to exploitation could have been to back the Victim Support Bill, tabled by Conservative peer Lord McColl. This Bill proposed that modern slavery victims of all nationalities should receive a minimum of 12 months’ leave to remain in the UK, but the government rejected these measures.

The proposed two-tier asylum system in the Borders Bill introduces further inequalities into an already inherently racist process. This system will divide up people into two categories, depending on whether they arrive through formal or informal routes, despite Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention clearly stating that people can’t be penalised for so-called “illegal entry or presence”. People who are placed in this latter category will have to evidence why they can’t return to the country they have left every two and a half years. They will also have limited family reunion rights and ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF). This will mean more people being subjected to the dangerous NRPF condition, which places people on a high, dangerous precipice without the welfare safety net to catch them (shaky as it is).

The NRPF condition was systematically imposed on many people’s leave to remain after 2012, at the advent of the ‘hostile environment’. The fallout of this has been incredibly violent, with many people facing homelessness and destitution when they fall on hard times. Of course, this has only been compounded during the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, in August 2020, we saw the death of devoted mother and treasured friend Mercy Baguma in Glasgow. She was found dead next to her crying baby. Mercy, who had No Recourse to Public Funds, had been scraping together food from charities and friends while trying to seek asylum and receiving no government support. Given this context, and the intense hardships faced by people with NRPF, the introduction of these measures show an utter disinterest in the survival of people who cross borders to come to the UK.

The good news, if we can seek some, is that the Bill has been widely condemned and is likely to be met with heavy litigation. In addition, what remains to be seen is whether and how the Bill could be implemented. It’s possible that the Bill is more of a PR exercise for the government to try and position itself as being “tough on immigration”, but potentially with little teeth or intention to follow through with the measures. Either way, it seems likely that the government won’t lose any time in seeking to push it through, with the second reading of the Bill due next week. Those who are fighting for a world without borders, or learning afresh about why abolition is needed, will be buckling up for a fierce fight ahead.

Follow Leah Cowan on Twitter.

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