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Guest blog: Breaking down the effects of the Nationality and Borders Bill

Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action

Seventy years ago, the UK’s leaders helped design a system that would ensure people fleeing persecution could cross borders and rebuild lives in safety in another country.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was born in between two wars, one hot, one cold. Minority groups were jailed, oppressed and murdered on an unimaginable scale in the Second World War while the horrors that the Cold War might wreak played out in our worst nightmares.

While imperfect – non-Europeans were excluded in the 1951 document and not included until the 1967 Protocol – the Refugee Convention remains the best protection that exists to safeguard the rights of people fleeing persecution.

But, 70 years after it was drafted, UK leaders are trying to pull us out of it.

This isn’t directly through an official withdrawal, but indirectly by drafting a Bill that attempts to absolve our responsibility to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Let’s be honest, the anti-refugee Nationality and Borders Bill was only ever going to be hostile to refugees and not a genuine attempt to fix actual problems such as cripplingly long wait times, destitution, mental health issues, Channel crossings, or labour access.

That’s because the hostile environment still determines immigration policy at the Home Office, because for 20 years asylum policy has edged towards punishment, not protection, and because we have a hardline Home Secretary who – like Home Secretaries before her – blames refugees for these problems.

For her, the only solution to problems in the asylum system is to keep refugees out and punish the ones who do arrive. This strategy underpins some of the most appalling measures in the Bill.

For instance, Clause 39 creates the criminal offence of “knowingly arriving in the UK without the necessary entry clearance”, a crime that carries a potential jail sentence of four years. As people must be on UK soil to claim asylum, this has the potential to criminalise tens of thousands of refugees.

This is one several parts of the Bill that appears to breach the Refugee Convention, whose authors, anticipating the problems refugees would have fleeing across borders, inserted article 31, which said refugees should not be penalised if enter a country illegally.

Schedule 3 of the Bill legislates to offshore refugees while their asylum claim is pending. Newspaper front pages have reported Home Office Ministers scouring the world – including former European colonies such as Ghana and Rwanda – for Governments that will exchange British pound sterling for human beings.

But we only need look at what happened in Australia to see just how horrific offshoring is. The asylum camps on Manus Island and Nauru – run for profit by private contractors – were humanitarian disasters rife with abuse, suicide, violence and poverty.

And creating such horror did not come cheap. Figures from the Australian Government and analysed by the Guardian revealed that in 2021 it was costing the taxpayer £2.3 million to offshore one per person per year.

The policy has also been criticised as racist. The African Union said it “perceives such attempts as an extension of the borders of such countries and an extension of their control to the African shores” and that it was xenophobic. The UNHCR said it was neo-colonial.

Refugees whose applications are processed in the UK face punishment, too. The Bill outlines plans to develop “reception centres”, warehouse-like buildings where people will have to live in “basic” conditions while their asylum claim is decided.

Such conditions are not new. Repurposed army barracks near Folkestone and Tenby provide a glimpse of what these centres could look like: overcrowded, unsafe, retraumatising buildings with few activities and miles from legal and health services, cultural support and communities.

The Anti Refugee Bill is so replete with punishing and dehumanising policy it’s hard to pick out the most egregious. However, one of the most fundamental changes is Clause 11, which sets out plans to create a lower class of refugee depending on how a person arrived in the country and when they claimed asylum.

People who arrive via a “safe third country” will only ever be entitled to limited protection in the UK. Their status will be reassessed every 30 months, which will leave people in perpetual limbo and make it impossible to properly rebuild their lives and integrate into their communities. Clause 11 shows that temporary protection is no protection at all.

Ministers would create a better asylum system if instead of punishing refugees, they listened to them.

Instead of an Anti-Refugee Bill, we would have legislation that aimed to reduce wait times, gave people the right to work, and provided more safe routes for refugees to reach the UK. It would ensure better monitoring of private contractors and ensure a greater allowance than the measly £5.66 a day.

But rather than listened to, refugees at every turn are demonised and ignored.

In Wendy Williams’ Lesson Learned review of the Windrush Scandal, she wrote: “[The Home Office] should take steps to understand the groups and communities that its policies affect through improved engagement, social research, and by involving service users in designing its services.”

But, as this Bill and our recent shameful record of treating refugees show, the Government does not learn lessons.

Tim Naor Hilton is Chief Executive of Refugee Action.