Baroness Jones: 19 government defeats on Nationality and Borders Bill

The government’s awful response to the plight of Ukrainian refugees highlights everything that is wrong with its Nationality and Borders Bill.

Refugees

Jenny Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords

The Lords have made numerous big amendments to the government’s approach to asylum, refugees and citizenship.

These are changes that Green Party peers have been talking about for a while, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought it home to many more people how these xenophobic policies are being cemented into law.

An anti-immigration agenda

The farce of the home secretary talking about non-existent visa desks and making up new policies that collapse within a few hours was comical, but predictable. Greens have been calling for the Home Office to be replaced for years. It’s dysfunctional and draconian.

A major reason why the government has failed is because it is determinedly sticking to an anti-immigration agenda at a time when the majority of the country simply wants to reach out and help people.

The approach outlined in the Nationality Bill contradicts everything they need to do to help the people of Ukraine get through this.

First, we had restrictions on families being reunited – the Lords have amended this in the Bill. The government quickly widened this definition for Ukrainian families, as a result of public disgust at their approach, but we need this approach for everyone.

With Ukrainian refugees being turned back at Calais and facing the usual bureaucratic nightmare of getting a UK visa by ‘proper’ means – it highlights the even bigger hurdles faced by people from other Russian warzones like Syria.

The Nationality Bill aims to split refugees into ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ based upon their ability to access the preferred routes the UK government occasionally provides. The Lords just deleted that idea.

The government’s latest shift is to allow documentation to be done online, rather than in person, but this still falls short of the open arms approach taken by the rest of Europe.

The EU is giving Ukrainians the right to live, work, access healthcare, housing, and education immediately in any of its member states, without having to go through an asylum application process.

By contrast, Ukrainians without family members in the UK have to rely on ‘normal’ visas, typically used to visit, study or work in the UK. This includes the Seasonal Worker Visa, typically used by fruit pickers, and the Standard Visitor Visa, which covers tourism, study and other activities. The government has announced plans for a new Local Sponsorship Scheme, but details have yet to be made public.

Ukrainians seeking asylum – predominantly women and children – run the risk of being held in immigration detention, but will likely have to survive on limited ‘asylum support’ benefits, and face huge delays while their applications progress through a mammoth backlog.

Patel complained about Ireland taking too many refugees

The lowest of many low points was reached when Priti Patel rang her Irish counterpart to complain that Ireland was taking in too many refugees and she was worried that Northern Ireland would act as a backdoor for ‘illegal’ immigration. Another Lords amendment deals with this issue.

When the government finally gets its act together and does take in a small share of Ukrainian refugees, the UK will probably reject the vast majority on the basis that they could have stayed in Poland. This idea that any ‘third’ country a refugee passes through can accept all the burden of looking after those in need is simply unfair and wrong, yet it is one of the main pillars of the Nationality Bill. Yes, the Lords have amended.

As for those refugees who do make it to the UK, unless they have immediate family or want to fill out the forms to pick strawberries, then the teachers, engineers and trades people amongst them won’t be allowed to work. They will be on minimal support. The Lords have changed this to allow people to earn their keep after 6 months which seems reasonable given that the conflict in Ukraine is going to be a long one. They also changed the current policy of No Recourse to Public Funds.

Please lobby your MPs, raise the issue of Ukraine and ask them to support the more humanitarian approach taken by the Lords. If the amendments are rejected and the Nationality bill passes it will make life worse for refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere.

You can find the key amendments here.   

These are the key amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill that the Lords have passed but the Commons might reject:

  • Asylum for genocide victims – to ensure a person who is part of a group at risk of genocide must be presumed to meet conditions for being granted asylum in UK
  • Reuniting families – peers voted for a clause which will help unaccompanied child refugees reunite with their family members in the UK. The Lord Dubs amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill will give safe passage to all unaccompanied minors from European countries. 
  • No offshoring refugees – peers deleted the Home Office power to deflect asylum-seekers off to other countries rather than process their claims in the UK. The government wants to make asylum claims inadmissible in the UK – when they believe someone could have/should have claimed asylum elsewhere. Peers ensured that the Bill’s clause 15 on inadmissible asylum claims can only come into force when safe returns agreements with third countries are in place and that people with outstanding asylum claims to be removed from the UK.
  • No criminalisation of asylum seekers – Lords voted to remove the parts of clause 39 that would make it a criminal offence for a person to arrive in the UK without a valid entry clearance to seek asylum.
  • No two tier system – the Lords voted to remove clause 11 from the Bill. The clause would effectively create a two-tier asylum system of legal and illegal asylum seekers, based on whether they arrived in the UK with or without official entry clearance.
  • Giving safety to unaccompanied children
  • Resettle 10k refugees a year
  • Rescue people at sea – to ensure that maritime enforcement powers must not endanger life at sea. The amendment specifies that the powers of immigration officers and enforcement officers can only be used when they do not endanger life at sea.
  • No criminalisation of people helping asylum seekers if no gain
  • Restoring citizens rights for the Chagos Islanders
  • Saying no to instant expulsion of people with dual citizenship – the controversial clause 9 was removed from the Bill by 209.  Clause 9 would allow the Home Secretary to remove a person’s British citizenship without notice or right of appeal in this country – if that person is one of the many millions who has dual citizenship. Natalie withdrew her more radical amendment that would have completely abolished the whole two tier system of citizenship upon which the government’s proposals are based.
  • Refugee convention enacted – Lords voted for adding a new clause to the Bill to ensure that it is enacted in ways that comply with the UK’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.
  • Right to work – Lords give people the right to work if they have been waiting for 6 months or more for a decision.
  • Allow late disclosure of evidence
  • More emphasis in age assessments on believing the child
  • Right to remain and financial support for victims of child slavery
  • Local journeys from Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland without need for Electronic Travel Authorisation

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