UK Parliament to debate controversial ‘anti-refugee’ bill

  • 6 Dec 2021

Among other provisions, the bill would penalise refugees who arrive in the UK illegally, while safe routes remain few and far between.

Migrants and refugees attempt to cross the English Channel near the Dover Strait on September 07, 2020. ( Luke Dray / Getty Images )

The UK parliament is set to debate a controversial new migration bill this week, when MPs will have the opportunity to vote on the final amendments before it reaches the upper house of parliament. The third and last reading of the new Nationality and Borders bill will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said the bill’s aim is to “deter illegal entry into the UK” and “break the business model of people smuggling gangs and protecting the lives of those they endanger.” Late last month, 27 people lost their lives trying to cross the English Channel on a small dinghy. It was the deadliest incident recorded on the 20-mile (30 kilometres) stretch of sea between Britain and France in recent years.

Refugee rights groups have argued that it is the lack of safe routes such as resettlement or family reunification that endangers people’s lives, and criticised several of the bill’s provisions. The UNHCR has warned that the bill would undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Here are some of the main controversies around the bill and the issues likely to be debated.

Lack of safe routes

The bill proposes to create a two-tier asylum system that would see asylum seekers who have entered the country through illegal routes – the vast majority of refugees - receive a “lower class” refugee status. In its current form, it also criminalises asylum seekers by introducing a maximum sentence of four years in prison for anyone entering the UK illegally.

The government says it will provide permanent residency and other support to refugees who arrive to the UK through legal routes, and points out it is running seven different schemes that allows people to enter the UK legally including through work visas, and that it has resettled 25,000 refugees since 2015, more than any other European countries.

Those numbers however, have dwindled as refugee resettlement all but ground to a halt during the pandemic. While it is slowly picking up, only just over 500 people were resettled to the UK from July to September 2021, according to the latest government data. 

That’s a tiny fraction of the 84 million people the UN estimates were displaced by conflict and poverty by 2020, a number that keeps growing year on year. The vast majority are displaced within their own countries of origin, or hosted by neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Uganda and Pakistan. 

The Home Office has come under fire for failing to launch a resettlement scheme announced for Afghan refugees earlier this year. While over 7,000 people directly employed by the British government and their family members were evacuated to the UK after the Taliban takeover last summer, a programme that would see 20,000 vulnerable Afghans resettled to the UK over the next few years has yet to take off. The Home Office confirmed to TRT World that no date had been set yet for the scheme’s launch.

For comparison, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 82,000 Afghans have arrived to neighbouring countries in 2021, around 60 percent of whom are in Pakistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that between 500 to 1000 Afghans enter Iran on a daily basis.

Australian-style offshore “processing”

Among the most controversial proposals is a plan for an Australian-style “offshore processing” of asylum claims. While it remains unclear where the centres would be located abroad, the government says the plan is aimed at deterring irregular migration. 

Several countries including Albania have so far denied they are considering proposals by the UK government to host such centres. While the feasibility of such plans remains unclear, critics point out they are costly and impractical. Rights groups have highlighted that in Australia, offshore centres have led to widespread human rights violations, while former Brexit secretary and Conservative MP David Davis said it could lead to the creation of a “British Guantanamo Bay”, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Post-Brexit family reunion unaddressed

UK residents and citizens who want to bring their spouses and families to live with them from abroad have to fulfill a series of criteria including a minimum income requirement of £18,600 ($25,000) per year, which is raised with each child.

Family reunion has become harder since the UK’s divorce from the European Union. Exiting the EU’s common asylum system also means that its rules for family reunification – which allowed minors and other family members based in other European countries to apply to have their claims heard in the UK – no longer apply.

The UNHCR has warned that the system could lead to more women and children making the dangerous journey across the English Channel.

More powers to strip UK citizenship

Under another controversial clause of the bill added earlier this month, the government will be able to strip individuals of their citizenship without notice in cases where it is not “reasonably practical” to do so in the interest of national security, diplomatic relations or other public interest.

“British citizenship is a privilege, not a right. Deprivation of citizenship on conducive grounds is rightly reserved for those who pose a threat to the UK or whose conduct involves very high harm," the Home Office said in a statement.

The UK introduced measures that allow British nationals and naturalised citizens to be stripped of their citizenship in 2002. The new law would significantly broaden the scope of those powers.