Image Credit: John Englart
The Home Secretary introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill to Parliament on 6 July. It contains proposals to reform the UK’s immigration system, prompted by concerns about the dangerous ways that asylum seekers enter the UK, and how people smugglers profit from their suffering. However, the bill’s proposals do not truly seem to be made with the safety of vulnerable asylum seekers in mind.
The bill suggests a number of changes to the current system, including the introduction of life sentences for people smugglers. Border forces would have new powers to stop and redirect vessels out of British waters, and people who enter the UK without permission could face criminal charges and up to four years in prison. Undoubtedly, these changes would make it more difficult for people to use irregular routes to enter the UK.
Another clause in the bill directly aims to dissuade asylum seekers from entering the country ‘illegally’. It states that those who come here via illegal means, even if they have a legitimate asylum claim, will only be allowed to remain in the country for up to 30 months, will be barred from claiming most benefits and will not be allowed to bring family members here. In contrast, those who apply in advance to enter the country through legal routes, for example through the UN’s refugee agency, will get permission to come to the UK immediately and will be allowed to stay indefinitely.
"Far from protecting asylum seekers, who are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, Patel’s proposals criminalise people who need our help."
However, these legal application processes are extremely impractical and ignore the reality of asylum seekers’ situations. Many are leaving their country due to persecution, and cannot apply for asylum as authorities will not allow them to officially leave their country. For example, the highest number of asylum seekers who came to the UK in 2020 came from Iran, where political dissidence can mean facing imprisonment, and drugs charges and homosexuality are punishable by execution. Nobody chooses to risk their lives and the lives of their families by using irregular routes: they do it because it is their only choice.
Furthermore, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. Everyone has the right to seek asylum and this right is guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition to this, the Refugee Convention, which was created in the aftermath of the Second World War, recognises that people may have to use irregular means to get to safety.
The Refugee Convention is rooted in lessons learned from the Holocaust. But are we making the same mistakes again? Helping those believed to be asylum seekers to enter the UK would be a criminal offence under this new bill. Sir Nicholas Winton was a British banker who was known for saving the lives of 664 children from Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. He organised transport for them to leave the country and found homes for them once they reached the UK. He was eventually knighted for his heroism. Under Priti Patel’s new proposals, however, what Winton did would be illegal.
The government’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers perpetuates myths about them and their status in this country. One of these myths is that the UK takes in a large number of displaced people. In reality, the UK is home to just one percent of the world’s refugees, with 86 percent of refugees living in neighbouring countries to their original home.
Asylum seekers do not come to the UK in order to try and claim benefits. They come here because they think the UK offers an opportunity for a better life for them and their families, and most asylum seekers will not be aware of the welfare system before they arrive. When they do arrive, asylum seekers are only entitled to £5.66 per day. Many are destitute or live in poverty, as they are legally not allowed to work while their claim is being processed. Rather than wanting to live off benefits, many asylum seekers will have great things to contribute to our society; for example, there are 1200 refugees who are medically trained on the British Medical Association database.
To truly improve the system, asylum seekers need support from the UK government. Many have been the victims of extreme violence, will suffer from mental health problems and may have a fear of authorities. This makes it very difficult to discuss their experiences with Home Office officials.
Giving asylum seekers the opportunity to work while their claims are being processed would also help them to settle into the country, contribute to society and earn money to support themselves. Moreover, if the Home Secretary refuses to help those who enter the country illegally, we must create more safe and legal ways to enter the UK. We can only get rid of people smugglers when we eliminate the need for the black market they operate within.
Ultimately, the Nationality and Borders Bill only serves to divide and dehumanise. Far from protecting asylum seekers, who are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, Patel’s proposals criminalise people who need our help. As a country that prides itself on guaranteeing human rights and freedoms, the UK needs to treat people with kindness and compassion, and be on the right side of history.
The book The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay offers further insight into the experience of asylum seekers.