“The answer is not to disregard attacks on refugees as a trivial culture war. However cynical their intentions, the government’s actions have material consequences. Thousands of asylum seekers are living in constant fear for their future.”
By Nadia Whittome MP
After Marcus Rashford, you’d think the Tories would have learned not to pick fights with footballers. Despite that, this month they came into conflict with another football legend: I’m talking, of course, about Gary Lineker.
But amid the debate that his suspension and un-suspension sparked, about free speech and BBC impartiality, it’s easy to forget what the original controversy was about. The tweet that caused the debacle was a reaction to the government’s latest attack on asylum seekers: the Illegal Migration Bill.
In the latest attempt to respond to Channel crossings, the government has decided to bar people arriving irregularly from accessing the UK asylum system. Under their plans, migrants who survive small boat journeys would be detained (without bail for the first 28 days) and then removed, to their country of origin or an unspecified “third country”. They would also be banned from future re-entry and from ever obtaining UK citizenship. Chillingly, those who are trafficked to Britain would be denied modern slavery protections. Rather than tackling trafficking, this Bill would punish victims and let their abusers off the hook.
In practice, this Bill amounts to a near-complete ban on seeking asylum in the UK. Despite the government’s empty rhetoric about Britain’s proud record of welcoming refugees, there are currently hardly any official routes for people to seek safety here. There’s the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the Hong-Kong visa programme for holders of a British National (Overseas) passport. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Tories promised to also resettle people from Afghanistan, but this has largely failed to materialise. Only 22 Afghans have been brought to the UK under the government’s Pathway 2.
And that’s it. For all other people fleeing war or persecution, there are no safe ways to get to Britain. This includes people who already have families here, and fear not being able to see them again. Last year, 40% of people arriving on small boats came from just five countries: Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan – all of which are highly unsafe. The vast majority of people whose claims are processed are granted protection.
The government’s proposals are callous beyond belief. But it’s questionable whether the government even believes they can actually be delivered. Firstly, there are logistical questions: the Bill would require the UK to secure far more removal agreements with other countries, and build a vast network of new detention centres. Secondly, the legislation is certain to face legal challenges. Suella Braverman herself admitted that there’s more than a 50% chance that it’s incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. If it passes, we can expect a showdown.
But even if the Bill was implemented, it wouldn’t stop migrants from taking dangerous journeys. So far every measure that was meant to tackle Channel crossings, no matter how cruel, has failed. The Nationality and Borders Act hasn’t discouraged people from getting on small boats. Neither did the Rwanda announcement. There’s no reason to believe the result will be any different this time.
Of course, preventing deaths at sea is not the real purpose here. This Bill is a classic example of divide and rule: a tactic frequently deployed by the powerful to protect their interests, and by governments to distract from their failures. The Tories want news headlines to be dominated by Channel crossings and fights with the ECHR – and not the fact that the country around us is crumbling. Real-terms wages are now lower than they were 15 years ago. Poverty is soaring. The NHS is missing its key targets by a mile. No wonder Rishi Sunak would prefer us to be angry about migrants and “lefty lawyers” instead.
Nevertheless, the answer is not to disregard attacks on refugees as a trivial culture war. However cynical their intentions, the government’s actions have material consequences. Thousands of asylum seekers, who had already survived unimaginable horrors, are living in constant fear for their future. Hundreds of children have gone missing from Home Office hotels, staffed by people not qualified to take care of them. Aggressive anti-migrant rhetoric is already fuelling far-right violence. Incidents like the terrorist attack in Dover or the riot in Knowsley should have served as a warning sign. They didn’t.
Despite what the Tories and the right-wing media would like us to believe, the UK receives fewer asylum applications than France, Germany or Spain – not to mention countries like Turkey, Colombia or Uganda, which host many times more refugees than we do. The real crisis facing this country is not one of migration but of inhumanity.
There is an alternative: opening safe, legal routes for people seeking safety. Expanding the right to family reunion. Giving asylum seekers the right to work, so they can use their skills and talents, rather than relying on a measly government allowance of £45 a week. This approach would save lives, avoid breaking international law and benefit all of society. But it would require showing some compassion – the one thing this government seems unwilling to do.
- Nadia Whittome is the MP for Nottingham East and a regular contributor for Labour Outlook. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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