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The Nationality and Borders Bill will make a rotten system worse

4 min read

We need a fair and efficient asylum processes for everyone, more safe routes and support for people to rebuild their lives in Britain. This bill fails on all counts.

For a few years from 1997, there was a prison ship moored off Portland harbour in Dorset.  Conditions on board were described by the prisons inspectorate as unsuitable, cramped and poorly ventilated. It was expensive to provision and eventually closed in 2006. 

You would have hoped the Home Office would have learned the lesson of HMP Weare.  Yet accommodating asylum seekers in disused ferries, abandoned oil rigs or even far-off places like Ascension Island is one of the proposals being put forward by Home Secretary Priti Patel in the Nationality and Borders Bill. 

It’s hard to think of a Bill more lacking in compassion and fairness and which does so little to address asylum issues.  It is a mean-spirited, inhumane and possibly illegal response which will criminalise many seeking sanctuary and play into the hands of people traffickers. It is badly thought-through, puts vulnerable people at risk, undermines the UN refugee convention (which the UK helped write in 1951), restricts access to justice, and in many respects is unworkable. 

This is pure political posturing by the Home Secretary who wants to be seen to be acting tough on immigration but is instead targeting people who’ve been left with no other option but to cross the English Channel in small boats to seek asylum in Britain.  

Let’s start with them. No-one crosses 21 miles of open water in this way for fun. They do it because it is the only option open to them. They may have fled persecution and be in fear for their lives.

Criminalising people purely because of the way they’ve arrived in Britain is wrong

In most cases, in order to claim asylum in the UK you must first be on British soil. The only existing routes to apply from outside the UK are limited. The government also closed down the Dubs route so that even unaccompanied children in the EU cannot reach the UK safely.

Around two-thirds of those granted asylum in the UK had not travelled here via resettlement schemes, a fact the Home Secretary conveniently ignores. Rather than have their cases heard, in future people who are seeking sanctuary will face up to four years in prison. 

Criminalising people purely because of the way they’ve arrived in Britain is wrong on so many levels. It ignores their reason for fleeing here and makes it harder for the victims of trafficking to come forward to seek help for fear of being imprisoned for “illegal entry”. 

The Home Secretary’s claim that those arriving in small boats across the Channel should have claimed asylum in the EU ignores the fact that there is no international law requiring refugees to seek asylum in one country over another and people may have very strong reasons, such as family ties, for trying to reach Britain. 

Under the Bill, Border Force agents will have the powers to intercept boats in the Channel and redirect them back to France. But they’ll need permission from the French authorities first.  

EU countries have already said they won’t “take back” refugees who’ve left their shores for Britain and now we’ve left the EU, they have no obligation to.  That leaves us with the Home Secretary’s other plan – to return asylum seekers to their home countries regardless of the persecution they may face there, and threatening to block visas for countries which refuse to accept her deal.

There is one issue where I agree with the Home Secretary: the current system is broken. After 11 years in power, the responsibility for that lies firmly with Conservative governments. This new Nationality and Borders Bill will do nothing to fix that – it will only make a rotten system worse.

It is taking far too long for asylum seekers to have their applications processed, with the number of people waiting more than a year for an initial decision rising ten-fold between 2010 and 2020. Trapped in limbo, they are unable to work and are often housed in poor conditions. Last month, the High Court ruled that asylum seekers were being unlawfully detained at Napier Barracks in “squalid and unsafe” conditions. 

Yes, we need to fix the asylum system in a way that respects our international obligations, protects the rights of asylum seekers and promotes fairness and compassion. This means fair and efficient asylum processes for everyone, more safe routes and support for people to rebuild their lives here. This bill fails on all counts. 


Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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