New legislation targeting refugees who arrive in the United Kingdom illegally is aimed squarely at “punishing” the most vulnerable, a leading immigration lawyer has said.
This week the British Home Office unveiled a proposed shake-up of the country’s asylum processes that it claimed would “stop the abuse of the system”.
The Nationality and Borders Bill would make it a criminal offence for refugees to enter the country illegally if they have already passed through another so-called “safe” country in Europe.
It also includes provisions for the UK to hold asylum seekers in offshore detention centers while it processes their cases, and to introduce a new “one-stop” system for processing their legal cases.
Humanitarian charities and rights organizations have lined up to condemn the proposals as unfair and inhumane. If the bill became law in its current form, those arriving by boat after making the perilous Channel crossing from France, who often hail from countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sudan, would instantly be treated as criminals.
The Refugee Council believes up to 9,000 people a year fleeing war, persecution and human rights abuses could be affected by the reforms. Amnesty International UK’s refugee program chief Steve Valdez-Symonds has branded the move “legislative vandalism”, adding: “This reckless and deeply-unjust bill is set to bring shame on Britain’s international reputation.”
Is the UK’s New Immigration Bill Even Legal?
Immigration control has been a flagship policy of the UK’s ruling Conservative party – and the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel – for years, as the UK has struggled to come to terms with a backlog of asylum cases and appeals.
But one of the biggest criticisms of the Nationality and Borders Bill is that in practice it would be unworkable, illegal under international law, or else make the situation worse.
Kaweh Beheshtizadeh is an award-winning immigration and asylum lawyer who first came to the UK in 2004 as a refugee. He says the bill is so ill-conceived that he does not even believe the UK government plans to see it become law, but rather wants to use it as a publicity stunt.
“They know that if they introduce this bill to parliament it will not survive,” he told IranWire. “But it will get into the news. The idea, I think, is that the embarrassment and scandal [of the bill] goes around the world and makes fewer people want to come here.
“I don’t believe it’s just badly-drafted. It’s drafted with the purpose of damaging the UK’s reputation internationally, but also sending a message.”
Between 80 and 85 percent of UK asylum seekers arrive through legal routes, often on temporary or student visas. Those affected by the proposals will therefore be among the most desperate: people who did not have recourse to a plane ticket or program of study.
The UK is a signatory to the International Convention on Human Rights, the UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights, all of which enshrine claiming asylum as a basic right. This means the bill could be overturned in the UK and international courts, even if it gets through the lower and upper Houses of Parliament.
Punishing Asylum Seekers in the UK is Pointless
The individual tenets of the new bill are also questionable. Jailing people who arrive in the UK illegally, Beheshtizadeh pointed out, would not void their asylum claim but would simply delay it being processed by the Home Office, subjecting arrivals to further trauma while “putting the already under-pressure criminal justice system under more pressure”.
The bill also declares that “people smugglers who facilitate illegal entry to the UK… will face up to life imprisonment”. But many of these so-called “people smugglers” are the boat pilots, who are often refugees themselves. The UK’s Crown Prosecution Service has just announced that in most cases, migrant boat drivers will no longer be considered in breach of the law.
The proposed “one-stop” process for dealing with asylum claims would mean UK courts hear asylum, human rights claims and any other protection matters early and all together. In most cases the applicant would not be allowed to produce new documents in support of their case later.
This, Beheshtizadeh said, would also be against “the basic principles of fairness in the Refugee Convention… Good or bad faith, it doesn’t matter, if someone is at risk in their country of origin they must be granted refugee status.”
Fresh and valid evidence, he added, often comes to light while an application is still being processed. “Medical records take time to compile. Mental health problems are not diagnosed overnight.” The political circumstances in a refugee’s country of origin can also change.
In late June, the UK government was said to be in talks with Denmark to share a prison-like offshore migration center in Africa, to which “illegal” arrivals could be sent if the legislation is passed.
This appears to be a non-starter because Denmark is subject to European Union rules. More broadly, Beheshtizadeh believes, the likelihood of the UK setting up and managing such a site is nominal.
“I don’t think there’s any part of this bill that I could even generously say was justified or good,” he told IranWire. “The fundamental issue in the UK is Home Office mismanagement of these cases. Not one person has been removed from the UK in the last seven to eight months.
“Rather than spending millions on unworkable plans and policies, and instead of putting some of the most vulnerable people in the world through this, it might be better to change the management.”
Freedom from Torture Slams Proposed “Two-Tier” System
The UK-based charity Freedom from Torture provides therapy and support for torture survivors the world over. In 2019, Iran was the third-biggest country of origin for its service users. The charity recently commissioned a 70-page legal opinion from top barristers who concluded that large swathes of the proposed bill were unlawful.
Apart from breaching international law, Freedom from Torture has warned, the bill contains a specific provision for individuals who arrive in the UK irregularly to be given “temporary protection status” rather than the standard refugee status.
This inferior legal status would see them lose access to welfare benefits, have restricted rights to family reunion and have no automatic right to settle in the UK.
“Bestowing a temporary and second-class status on refugees not because their need for protection is less urgent or compelling, but purely because they were obliged to travel irregularly,” the charity said, “is cruel and unjustified. The people affected will live in a state of perpetual anxiety, never knowing whether they will be returned to persecution or death.”