Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill will further criminalise asylum seekers

'According to Patel, our asylum system is broken and the way to fix it is to criminalise asylum seekers'.

‘On Sunday evening, I received a call from Border Force officials, who told me a family trying to cross the Channel had been separated,’ began Priti Patel for the Daily Mail. “People smugglers in Northern France had, at gunpoint, forced a mother and father on to a small boat. They promised they would put their two young daughters on to the next boat. The parents protested and were threatened again. They last saw their girls on the beach.”

Patel used this harrowing story to justify the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which has been proposed as the ‘cornerstone of the government’s New Plan for Immigration.’ Its objectives are to: 

-Make the system more effective to support the genuine needs of asylum seekers

-Deter illegal entry into the UK, which would reduce human trafficking 

-Remove illegal immigrants

What Are Concerns About the Nationality and Borders Bill?

According to Patel, our asylum system is broken and the way to fix it is to criminalise asylum seekers desperately attempting to access the safety and security of the UK. If the bill passes, it would give border forces power to stop and redirect vessels out of British waters and threaten criminal charges to people who enter the UK without permission. Additionally, it states that those who enter the UK illegally can only stay up to 30 months, can’t claim benefits, and won’t be able to bring family to join them in the UK. 

In his deconstruction of the bill, Colin Yeo, immigration and asylum barrister, explained for Free Movement his first impressions of the bill: It’s not very new law, is bad for refugees and the public purse, includes genuine ‘nastiness’, and will only worsen the UK’s asylum system. He goes on to claim that the problem with our asylum is the speed at which asylum claims are processed and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. He warned: “This Bill will lead to more delays and it punishes genuine refugees for having the temerity to come to seek sanctuary in our country rather than remain someone else’s responsibility.”

MP Caroline Lucas, of the Green Party, wrote about her concerns at Politics Home: “It is a mean-spirited, inhumane and possibly illegal response which will criminalise many seeking sanctuary and play into the hands of people traffickers. It is badly thought-through, puts vulnerable people at risk, undermines the UN refugee convention (which the UK helped write in 1951), restricts access to justice, and in many respects is unworkable.”

The Most Vulnerable Could Be Harmed By This Bill

Though touted as a way to protect the vulnerable, this bill will put some of the most vulnerable, trafficked persons and children, at further risk. 

“The concern is that the Nationality and Borders Bill builds on the hostile immigration environment and narrows down people’s options based on circumstances completely out of their control,” says Kate Roberts of Anti-Slavery International. 

Roberts, while unsure of the exact impact the bill could have on the lives of trafficked individuals, is worried about the increase of human trafficking following the implementation of the bill. She explains that the bill misses the reality of how people become trafficked, mainly due to impossible circumstances and lack of options. Without plentiful viable routes into the UK, people are forced to use unviable routes, such as dinghies and lorries, but now even that option could be criminalised under the bill. 

“Once people are in a situation where their options are greatly reduced, they will be increasingly driven underground and vulnerable to exploitation,” Roberts says. “People wouldn’t take those dangerous journeys if they had a choice. The fear is that will just drive people into more risk by making their journeys more hidden because they have to be additionally fearful of getting caught.”

ECPAT UK is equally concerned about the bill and its effect on children’s rights to protection, leaving them at risk of dangerous journeys, trafficking, and criminalisation. 

“This is an urgent human rights and child protection crisis,” says Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK. “It will fail to protect those in need of safety, including unaccompanied children who will be at significant risk of dangerous journeys, exploitation and harm. New measures will criminalise many seeking sanctuary in the UK and create a two-tier asylum system that is not based on needs for protection, but on the means by which an individual arrived in the UK.”

ECPAT UK worries that the contents of the bill will delay support children receive, pressure children to disclose trauma that they may find distressing, unnecessarily exclude children as victims of trafficking, class children as adults, and put unaccompanied children at further risk of exploitation. 

“Children with insecure immigration status are vulnerable to exploitation and harm by those seeking to take advantage of their vulnerability,” says Durr. 

“Being left in immigration limbo and fearing removal from the UK is a significant driver of children going missing from local authority care and statutory support services, and being trafficked. Children must be treated as children first and foremost and our concern with this bill is that it seeks to erode hard fought for rights and protections and leaves some of the most vulnerable children at the greatest risk and holds us to a different standard of care and protection for them.’”

Does The Asylum System Need Fixing?

The asylum system needs fixing, but certainly not the solution proposed by Priti Patel. The Refugee Council found that 33,000 people were waiting more than 12 months for an initial asylum claim last year. These sorts of delays and the increasingly small viable routes into the UK put vulnerable adults and children at risk of further harm and exploitation.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will do nothing to address the genuine needs of asylum seekers who are desperate to rebuild their lives in the UK. 

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