In February, 1000+ faith leaders wrote to the Prime Minister raising their concerns about the Nationality and Borders Bill, urging him to make changes even at this late stage. At the beginning of April, we received a reply to the letter from Tom Pursglove MP, Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration. You can read the full reply here.
The letter was not substantially different from the statements and responses the Home Office have made regarding the Bill over recent months. It reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supporting the Bill, and to pushing through the changes to the asylum system it creates. It repeated claims about the effectiveness of measures in the Bill, despite widespread claims to the contrary.
On Wednesday 20th April, the Bill returns to the House of Commons as MPs are given the chance to vote on amendments made by the House of Lords once again. Ahead of this vote, we wanted to respond to some of the claims made in the Home Office’s response to the letter, and suggest what you could do next.
Home Office Reply
The Home Office Reply responds to a number of the points raised in the letter from faith leaders, which in itself is helpful. However, a number of them do little to directly address the concerns raised.
In the letter, the Home Office say ‘We want to welcome the brightest and the best through a points-based system, crack down on evil people smugglers who have no regard for life and help – through safe and legal routes – those genuinely fleeing in fear of their lives’. This echoes an argument made by the Home Office consistently over past few years, suggesting that those crossing the channel are not ‘genuine’ asylum seekers. See https://fullfact.org/immigration/scott-benton-small-boats-economic-migrants/ Yet of those who arrive in the UK via small boat channel crossing, the majority have their claim for asylum accepted. See https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/immigration-statistics-year-ending-june-2021/how-many-people-do-we-grant-asylum-or-protection-to and … Continue reading The majority of people who arrive in the UK to claim asylum via small boat come from just 10 countries of origin, many of which have extremely limited alternative safe routes. Iranians are the top nationality for people crossing the channel, and yet only one person from Iran was resettled in the UK via direct route between January 2020 and May 2021. The UK did not resettle a single person from Kuwait, Yemen or Vietnam in this time, despite all being in the top nationalities that cross the Channel. See https://media.refugeecouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/24155629/Channel-crossings-and-asylum-outcomes-November-2021.pdf In the letter, the Home Office state ‘there are numerous ways to arrive in the UK via regular means.’ Whilst this might be true for the small number of countries currently with direct resettlement schemes (such as Ukraine and Afghanistan), it is clear that these routes do not meet the need being presented, limiting the vast majority of people in desperate need of asylum to struggle and take desperate measures to reach safety.
The Home Office also claim in the letter that ‘making unnecessary, illegal and desperately unsafe journeys is not the way to come to our country’. They frequently use the term ‘illegal’ to describe the irregular routes people use to travel to the UK to claim asylum, despite the fact that fact-checkers have frequently dismissed this claim as misleading. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim. The convention also recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to escape, and that this should be recognised. Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill establishes grounds to criminalise people who come via irregular routes, completely disregarding these criteria. As outlined above, for the vast majority of people who come via small channel crossings there is little to no other choice, with limited alternative schemes available. The Bill makes no provision for new schemes, and the government have consistently refused to even set a target for resettlement, implying that capacity can be determined on a whim (the uncapped scheme for Ukrainian refugees recently showing that in times of need, capacity can be found). Instead relying of forward planning and well-grounded judgement, the Bill squeezes people into impossible circumstances and punishes them for it. Desperately unsafe journeys may not be the preferred way to come to the UK for anyone (The Guardian recently reported that two-thirds of people who have made small boat channel crossings have hypothermia or injuries) but for many it is the only way.
The letter states that ‘the creation of Group 1 and Group 2 refugees will not change our fundamental approach in respect of deciding asylum applications on the individual merits of the case’. This references the provision in the Bill to differentiate between refugees depending on how they arrived in the UK, and treat them differently if they arrived via direct resettlement or another route. Under these rules, Group 2 refugees would be criminalised, denied recourse to public funds and only granted limited leave to remain. Despite their claim that this will not change their approach to applications, the Bill’s provision to automatically criminalise anyone in Group 2 means that refugees in this group have already been found at fault before the merits of their case are even heard, beginning the process with uneven and unjust standards. It is hard to comprehend how this can be seen as consistent with a fair approach.
The letter draws attention to the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ARCS) as an example of the government rising to high standards on resettlement. Yet despite claims of continuing resettlement, thousands of Afghan refugees continue to find themselves in temporary hotel accommodation and without basic support. They claim that the ‘ACRS is a clear demonstration of the Government’s New Plan For Immigration in action’. If this is a measure of the standards of support on offer, then its challenging to see the Bill as anything other than living up to incredibly low, uncompassionate standards.
However, the Home Office also refers to the schemes created to resettle Ukrainian refugees in the UK over recent months. These schemes have been unprecedented, and have been met with an outpouring of support from communities. Despite numerous delays and challenges, if this is the alternative standard the government are looking towards, then we should expect them to commit to much more in the way of resource and support. And yet, as the Methodist Presidency said in a recent statement, ‘at the same time as the Government asks us to open our homes to Ukrainian refugees, they are closing the door on refugees from around the world’. The Bill refuses to meet the standard set by the Homes for Ukraine scheme by making it impossibly hard for refugees from anywhere else in the world to access safe routes to the UK, and by punishing those who have no other choice but to flee to safety before the government get around to changing their minds. By failing to address this inconsistency, the government are refusing to live up to the standard communities across the UK have set in response to the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
It would take much more space and time to detail every claim made by the Home Office in this response. In the closing paragraphs, the Home Office Minister responsible for the reply writes ‘I would also like to assure you that the Government stands by its moral and legal obligations to help innocent people fleeing cruelty around the world’. Sadly, the letter and the government’s continued rejection of sound, rational and compassionate amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords does little to assure of this. Instead, the government are facing their last chance to raise their own standards, and to redefine the UK as a country with a truly and welcoming approach to those in need of help.
What can you do?
The Nationality and Borders Bill returns to the House of Commons on Wednesday 20th April. Ahead of the vote, we’re inviting you to write to your MP to urge them to use their power to support changes to the Bill. Even at this late stage, there is still time to make a difference.
We’ve written two template letters – one for Conservative MPs and one for MPs from opposition parties. If you’ve got 10 minutes, personalise this template letter and send it to your MP ahead of next Wednesday’s vote.
MPs return from recess on Tuesday 19th April. Let’s ensure that they return to find emails from their constituents encouraging them to choose positive and meaningful change in support of refugees and asylum seekers.