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Illegal Migration Bill must create a safe passage visa for refugees to claim asylum

(Alamy)

4 min read

As the Illegal Migration Bill enters the Committee stage today and MPs have a chance to debate amendments and new clauses, we should reflect on the aims of the bill, what it will achieve, and not only what it means for our asylum process, but the global system for offering aid and support to refugees.

The bill effectively bans any asylum claim that isn’t made through a bespoke scheme, such as Homes for Ukraine or the Afghan Resettlement scheme. Experts from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have been clear: the bill in its current form would break the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness, and international human rights law.

The government is not only violating international law but undermining the global system by which we protect and care for people

Not only will the bill affect our own system, but the impact will be felt far beyond our own borders. The countries closest to refugees’ country of origin bear overwhelming responsibility for supporting them. Of the 34.4 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide, 73 per cent are already hosted in neighbouring countries. There are, though, a minority who travel further. The reasons for this are numerous and could relate to family ties, the language refugees speak, a cultural connection, or professional contacts, to name only a few. Half of the people who come here in small boats come from places such as Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, or Syria. When they arrive, their asylum claims have a success rate of 80 per cent. Their irregular entry into the UK therefore has nothing to do with the substance of their claim, but rather the logistics of getting here – from many countries, there simply does not exist a direct way of travel to the UK.

The Refugee Convention rightly operates on the principle that refugees can claim asylum anywhere. In rejecting that principle, the bill continues to place even further disproportionate responsibility on governments on the basis of their proximity to refugees’ country of origin, not their capacity to help, or their responsibility for the conditions, such as war or climate crisis, that drive refugee movements in the first place. We should therefore be equally clear that the bill risks significantly undermining the international refugee protection system and – if replicated internationally – would lead to its breakdown. 

The stated reason for this litany of violations of international law is that the bill will stop small boats crossings, deterring people from making them. But this deterrence framework – the logical extension of the “hostile environment” policy – has manifestly failed to stop the dangerous journeys. Since 2018, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of people coming here on small boats. The Nationality and Borders Act and the Rwanda policy have done nothing to change this – in fact, the number of dangerous crossings has continued.  

Nobody in this debate wants people to continue to risk their lives. What’s needed is a different policy that upholds and respects international law while putting an end to the crisis in the Channel. 

That’s why I’ve worked with the frontline charity Care 4 Calais, alongside the PCS Union, to put forward NC10, an amendment that aims to address the crisis with a practical, humanitarian solution. The proposal would create a safe passage visa which gives entry clearance to those already in Europe wishing to come to the UK to make an asylum claim. 

The visa is a highly focused proposal. It is not a substitute for the asylum process, which would take place as normal in the UK once a claim has been lodged here. Issuing a safe passage visa would involve some basic screening – such as uploading identity documents or the provision of biometrics at visa centres, where the former is not possible – and a check to see if the application is valid. What counts as valid is already defined in the immigration rules and isn’t related to an assessment of the application itself – most screening and processing associated with an asylum claim would still happen in the UK. By allowing remote, online applications for travel by regular means, the safe passage scheme builds on the success of the online component of the Ukrainian visa scheme. This scheme has been successful in preventing Ukrainians from crossing the channel in small boats. The safe passage visa would likewise end the need for crossings by providing an alternative, safe entry point.

In doubling down on a failed policy, the government is not only violating international law but undermining the global system by which we protect and care for people who have often been through the very worst that someone can suffer. There is another way – an approach that upholds our legal obligations while ending the crisis in the Channel and the humanitarian disaster in Calais and elsewhere in Europe. I hope colleagues will consider joining the already-extensive cross-party support for NC10 – it’s well past time the government changed its approach.

 

Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam.

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