2022/04: What is happening with the Borders Bill?

From Monday 28 February, the Borders Bill is at Report Stage in the House of Lords. Peers will look at the Bill as a whole, and vote on amendments. This stage is scheduled to take place on 28 February, and 2 and 8 March.

 

Three days after that, the Lords will vote on the Bill, as amended, at Third Reading, and then the Bill goes back to the House of Commons for MPs to consider the contributions made in the Lords.

 

This stage is vital, as MPs may choose to throw out the changes made in the Lords, or to debate them further and achieve a compromise. The House of Lords has very strong objections to numerous parts of the Bill, including provisions to introduce offshore detention of refugee and asylum seekers, to remove checks and balances on the deprivation of citizenship, and the differentiated treatment of refugees based on their mode of travel – all key elements of the Bill from the Government’s perspective.

 

Under the circumstances, the Bill will return to the Commons in mid-March and the Government will be seeking to move as fast as possible through sessions to consider amendments and receive Royal Assent for the Bill by late March/early April, in time for Easter recess.

 

This isn’t over. Stand against the Borders Bill – demo by Kill The Bill on Monday 28 February.

What does the Borders Bill mean for asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants?

The Borders Bill is extremely wide ranging, and makes sweeping changes to the UK asylum system. However, it lacks detail in many areas and gives the Home Secretary a huge amount of discretion over how many key proposals will be put into practice.

 

Some MPs and Peers have attempted to get more detail from the Government, using what’s called a ‘probing amendment’. But it has become clear that the Government has not yet exactly decided how different powers are likely to be used in practice. In other words, the Home Secretary is writing herself a blank cheque, and has not exactly decided how she will use it.

 

For months, the Home Secretary has made regular announcements to the media promising that the Bill will allow her to do all sorts of things. For example, on 22 January The Times reported that all single male asylum seekers who crossed the Channel would be subject to detention. 

 

Asked by Peers in Committee to comment on this story in particular – and the implication that 20,000 young men per year would be summarily detained – the Government spokesperson failed to clarify the situation. It shouldn’t need saying that men are refugees too, as Zoe pointed out to a Committee of MPs later in January.

 

The stated aims of the Bill are to discourage people from entering the UK to seek asylum through irregular means, and in particular to end irregular Channel crossings in small boats. It seeks to do this through a wide range of measures, including by:

  • introducing long criminal sentences targeted at asylum seekers arriving in the UK who have no connection to criminal gangs, including life sentences in some cases;
  • introducing a system to delay or deny protection by declaring asylum claims ‘inadmissible’ where a person has a connection to a safe country;
  • powers to push back asylum seeker boats at sea, which is contrary to the law of the sea;
  • broad powers to send asylum seekers to offshore detention facilities;
  • wide-ranging procedural reforms that will make it more difficult for a person in need of protection to be recognised as a refugee or a victim of trafficking;
  • granting far fewer rights to those who are eventually recognised as refugees.

The Bill also makes changes to nationality law, including by introducing Clause 9, which would allow the Home Secretary to strip an individual of their British nationality without notifying them in some circumstances. It would also introduce measures that could put children born in the UK at greater risk of statelessness.

In summary:

  • The Bill is an attack on the fundamental principles of refugee protection
  • The Home Secretary is giving herself new powers that she hasn’t even decided how to use – a threat to the checks and balances we rely on for our democracy to function
  • The Bill will see more asylum seekers thrown in prison, held in detention centres, removed to other countries – and if they ever manage to get refugee status, they will have fewer rights.

This isn’t over. Stand against the Borders Bill – demo by Kill The Bill on Monday 28 February.

What does the Borders Bill mean for refugees from Ukraine?

The Government says its Borders Bill is about stopping people from coming to the UK to seek asylum through ‚irregular‘ routes. But we see with Ukraine what we saw with Afghanistan – the situation changes rapidly, and people fleeing violence to find safety have no choice but to pack their bags and run.

 

The Government likes to pretend there is some ‚queue‘ that refugees should join – but this simply isn’t the case. The Borders Bill sets out a range of ways to punish people who arrive through ‚irregular‘ routes, but no new ways for people to travel.

 

Under the plans in the Borders Bill, Ukrainians reaching the UK to seek protection would be considered criminals, denied the right to seek asylum and face being sent to offshore detention. It does not have to be this way. We must treat those forced to flee as we would want to be treated, and open our arms to people escaping danger. That means scrapping the Anti-Refugee Borders Bill.

Will the Borders Bill stop Channel Crossings?

The Government says that the Bill will stop people coming to the UK to seek asylum through irregular means, and in particular it will end irregular Channel crossings in small boats.

 

But the Bill does not set out any new safe routes for asylum seekers to use to come to the UK, to replace the irregular routes the Government is so against. Nor is there a target for resettlement of refugees to the UK – which would at least create one safe route.

 

Unsurprisingly, there is no evidence that this approach will be successful in reducing the number of asylum seekers attempting to reach the UK through irregular means.

 

The Home Office’s own assessment recognises that the key factors in an asylum seeker’s decision-making are cultural, linguistic, family and other ties to a country – not a comparative analysis of the functioning of one or other state’s asylum system, which is information they do not have.

 

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has also found that an exclusionary focus on closing borders, without offering alternative ways to travel, simply forces people into more dangerous irregular journeys. Priti Patel knows this, as she was on the Committee when the report was published.

There is no evidence, from anywhere in the world, that treating recognised refugees more poorly, reducing the time they are allowed to live in a country, or denying them access to public funds, reduces the number of asylum applicants, or changes the ways they travel.

 

Nobody would risk their life on a dangerous journey if they had another choice. If the Government was serious about protecting the lives of vulnerable people, it would create safe routes for people to travel to the UK to claim asylum here. Instead, it is ignoring all evidence and repeating a tried-and-failed approach of clamping down on desperate people. This will push people to ever-more dangerous journeys in the hands of smuggling gangs.

What else will the Borders Bill do?

The Government’s Equality Impact Assessment of the Bill finds that it will produce discrimination on the grounds of race and nationality, by disadvantaging asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan in particular. It also finds that there is “little evidence” in support of the approach taken.

 

The UNHCR has produced detailed legal analysis explaining how the Bill violates the Refugee Convention in numerous ways. At Committee Stage on 1 February, several Peers who are lawyers gave their view that the Bill clearly breaches the UK’s obligations under International Law and under the Refugee Convention. The Government spokesperson was asked to publish the legal advice it had received that led it to the opposite conclusion but declined to do so.

 

The Government has, to date, not published an Economic Impact Assessment of the Bill. There are clearly numerous measures in the Bill that are likely to have a very significant economic cost. The Refugee Council has estimated that the imprisonment of asylum seekers for the new crime of irregular arrival in the UK would cost over £400 million per year.

 

The cost of proposals to detain asylum seekers offshore has been estimated – based on the amount spent on similar endeavours by the Australian state – by Detention Action to be in excess of £8 billion per year.

There are also the costs associated with the significant increase in delays to the asylum system and the increase in backlog in people waiting for a solution that are inevitably entailed by the system, on top of the cost of the significant number of legal challenges that the Government will face challenging various parts of the Bill as a whole and for each individual subject to a more complicated and legally muddy system.

What can I do?

The Bill has been on the way for a long time, and is now close to becoming law. The things it would do to our asylum system, our commitment to international law and to our society as a whole are unthinkable. So we must still fight it, to the very end.

 

Kill The Bill is organising a demo on Monday 28 February.

Once the Bill finishes going through the Lords, it will return to the House of Commons. This is why it’s so important to keep on speaking up. This Government has had more opposition than it bargained for in the House of Lords, and among the public too. The Bill’s return to the House of Commons will be a key moment to persuade MPs that they must join the Lords and oppose the Bill. So keep talking to your MP – especially if you have a Conservative MP – and keep encouraging others to do so.

This is a fight for what’s right, and for the kind of country we want to be – join us.

 

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