How Britain is turning its back on refugees

An empty migrant dinghy floats off the beach at St Margaret's Bay after the occupants landed from France on in September 2020 in Dover, England. [Getty]
6 min read
18 August, 2021
In-depth: The British home secretary has drafted a bill that, if passed, may make it almost impossible to seek permanent asylum in the UK.

The British Home Secretary Priti Patel last month hastily drafted a bill that could roll back the country’s commitment to granting asylum.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently under discussion by a committee, seeks to create a substandard secondary system for anyone who reached the UK without government permission or permits.

It also seeks to criminalise people for providing help to others that are seeking asylum.

Opponents have dubbed it ‘the anti-refugee bill’, and hope to tackle both the changes it proposes and the division it sows.

"When people started to realise how badly this government is handling the pandemic, the government started focussing on the channel crossings in a way that they hadn't before"

A two-tier system

The UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill introduces a ‘two-tier’ system in which a person’s ability to seek protection is decided not by their need but by their method of travel.

Those who are assisted by international resettlement programmes may continue to seek asylum.

Those who arrive without permission from the UK government will only be granted temporary refugee status (up to 30 months), along with a host of other penalties including camp-style accommodation and reduced rights and benefits.

However, there are almost no resettlement programmes to the UK that are currently running, and the bill fails to lay out any plans for more.

For example, hundreds of thousands of people are currently trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s rapid seizure of the country following the withdrawal of the United States and Western allies.

Those who worked with the British army fear reprisals, but most have no means of applying for British support to seek asylum. The only way they could do so would be to travel to the UK without support and claim asylum.

English channel [Getty]
An inflatable craft carrying refugees crosses the shipping lane in the English Channel on 22 July 2021 off the coast of Dover. [Getty]

In the proposed system, this journey would make them ineligible for full rights or asylum.

On Wednesday, following pressure from the public and British ministers, Patel announced a new five-year resettlement scheme for 20,000 Afghan refugees.

But critics say it is not enough, with only 5,000 expected to arrive by the end of 2021.

The home secretary also appeared to confirm that no exceptions would be made for Afghans seeking refuge who used so-called “irregular routes”, such as via the English Channel.

The majority of asylum seekers travel long and perilous journeys on their road to safety. Many seek to relocate to cities in which they have support networks, family members or shared language, which may not be the first country they arrive in.

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Rolling back the Refugee Convention

Along with most of the world, the UK is a signatory of the Refugee Convention and therefore recognises the right of people to seek safety in other countries if they are fleeing persecution - regardless of how they got there.

Before the Refugee Convention, hundreds of thousands of people persecuted by the Nazi Party in Germany attempted to flee. Most countries denied entry to those who had not obtained one of the few limited permits.

As a result, many Jews and other persecuted people were forced to remain in Germany and nearby territories later annexed and were killed in the Holocaust.

Sonya Sceats is CEO of Freedom From Torture, a charity that supports torture survivors in the UK, many of whom are refugees.

“This bill’s two-tier system will turn the clock back to that awful period of time during the Holocaust when people couldn’t get to safety,” she told The New Arab.

"Opponents have dubbed it 'the anti-refugee bill', and hope to tackle both the changes it proposes and the division it sows"

Criminalising support

For over a decade, people have been crossing the English Channel from France to Britain to seek asylum. The short distance is one of the world’s busiest cargo ship routes.

This makes the journey dangerous, prompting volunteers from a national lifeboat association to perform rescue missions.

The proposed legal changes would criminalise helping anyone if there is “reasonable cause to believe" they are "an asylum seeker”, even if it is clear that they did not have any financial interest in doing so.

Sean Binder took part in search and rescue missions off the coast of Greece in 2018 to assist people seeking asylum in similar rafts. The Greek government imprisoned him for over 100 days, and he now faces extensive criminal charges.

“The charges against me are an effort on the part of the Greek government to limit humanitarian assistance for people seeking refuge,” Binder tells The New Arab.

This scare tactic appears to be working.

channel crossings
A storage yard for the dinghies and rowing boats used by migrants to cross the English Channel from France. [Getty]

“The day after we were arrested there were no more search and rescue crews operating along the Lesbos coastline; they were simply frightened,” says Binder.

Refugees have paid the price: the death rate in the stretch of water between Turkey and Greece has risen sharply in the years since.

In the UK, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has come under fire from far-right politicians for assisting boats of people crossing into the UK. Under the proposed legislation, they will be vulnerable to prosecution, like Binder and the 157 others prosecuted for helping people who have crossed borders.

Across Europe, such criminalisation of solidarity has been used as a method for whipping up political support for populist right-wing leaders.

“This is exactly what I would expect from this cruel UK government,” says Binder.

"Polling shows that the majority of people in the UK still want it to be a place of sanctuary for people who need it"

Chasing popularity

Very few people actually seek asylum in the UK - less than a third than in countries like Germany or France, and an even smaller fraction than places closer to major conflict zones, like Jordan. What’s more, the number is falling.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Labour MP for Streatham in London, is one of the Members of Parliament who has vehemently opposed the Bill in Parliament.

“When people started to realise how badly this government is handling the pandemic, the government started focussing on the channel crossings in a way that they hadn’t before,” Ribeiro-Addy tells The New Arab.

The ruling Conservative Party may have picked up this tactic from the Australian right-wing political strategists that they have hired. In Australia, the most recent election in 2019 was won by a right-wing government on an anti-refugee, anti-migration platform.

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The Conservative Party in Britain holds a large majority in Parliament and is not expected to face much difficulty in voting the Bill through.

However, they may not be winning public opinion. Polling shows that the majority of people in the UK still want it to be a place of sanctuary for people who need it.

Since attacks against the Lifeboat Association began, donations have been up more than 2,000%, and messages of support continue to pour in.

“Many of the fights we win are won by ordinary people outside of parliament,” says Ribeiro-Addy.

“We’re really looking to migrant justice and refugee rights groups: together we will force a U-turn on this horrendous piece of legislation”.

Keira Dignan is a freelance journalist and librarian based in Athens, Greece. 

Follow her on Twitter: @DignanKeira