“This Bill will, if passed, make the situation dramatically worse, pushing tens of thousands more people every year into positions of extreme precarity and vulnerability.”
By Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, Praxis, for Migrants and Refugees
On Monday, MPs will scrutinise the Government’s latest round of anti-refugee legislation – a Bill that, in the words of the UN’s Refugee Agency, amounts to an “asylum ban” because it effectively removes the right to claim asylum directly in the UK.
Much has already been written about this abhorrent piece of legislation which the Government is currently rushing through parliament. The damage it will do to the men, women and children who arrive in this country, fleeing war, torture and other horrors, is incalculable. The damage it will do to the UK’s international standing, as it takes a sledgehammer to our obligations under international human rights and refugee law, is also significant.
The Bill aims to make it impossible for anyone travelling to the UK irregularly to claim asylum here, by indefinitely detaining people on arrival; deporting them either to their country of origin or a so-called “safe third country;” and barring them from ever claiming asylum in the UK in future. It will also permanently prevent them from settling or obtaining citizenship in the future.
Leaving aside the fact that the Government’s own analysis suggests that a deterrent approach like this is unlikely to actually reduce the number of people embarking on dangerous journeys, it is highly unlikely that the Government will actually be able to return most of people arriving here. This is because few return agreements with other countries are in place, and there are few incentives for these countries to sign up to returns agreements when the UK is already taking on so much less of the responsibility for protecting refugees than other countries.
So what will happen to these people? According to the Bill, everyone who arrives in the UK via “irregular” means, including pregnant women and children, will be detained on arrival. Given the lack of returns agreements in place, however, it seems likely that most will eventually be bailed. The Refugee Council estimates that more than 190,000 people may be left in this position over the first three years of the Bill’s life. What happens to them next has received somewhat less attention, at least so far, as we all try to understand how this poorly crafted piece of legislation will work in practice.
Certain things are clear. Those who are bailed from detention will have virtually no rights. They will be unable to work, and are therefore likely to be reliant on miserly levels of state support. Refugee Council’s analysis suggests this could cost more than £9bn over the first three years. Crucially, people will also have no prospect of ever improving their situation, because this Bill removes entirely their right to ever claim asylum or obtain the right to stay in the UK permanently. What this will mean in practice is that hundreds of thousands of people will end up in an indefinite state of limbo – unable to return to homes that were so unsafe they had to flee, unable to be sent to another country, yet denied a life or future in the UK. The net result of these measures will be that families and individuals who have had the misfortune to arrive here on or after 7th March 2023 will be condemned to a life of poverty and destitution, with no way out.
As a human rights charity working with people who have been marginalized by their immigration status for the last 40 years, we at Praxis are keenly aware of the many ways in which the immigration and asylum system already leaves people who have migrated here at an elevated risk of destitution and homelessness.
This Bill will, if passed, make the situation dramatically worse, pushing tens of thousands more people every year into positions of extreme precarity and vulnerability. After decades of working with migrants experiencing homelessness, we at Praxis know that, often, one of the keys to helping people off the streets is to help them sort out their immigration status. While not always straight forward, this can be vital to unlocking much-needed support so that people can rebuild their lives.
During the pandemic, the Everyone In initiative, which sought to bring people who were experiencing rough sleeping off the streets and into secure accommodation during lockdowns, demonstrated that ending rough sleeping is possible with the right combination of political will and collaboration. A lot of progress was also made for migrant rough sleepers, for whom the combination of accommodation and access to immigration advice was absolutely crucial.
But under the measures introduced in this Bill, tens of thousands of people every year will by design end up with no immigration status, and no access to status. Given that these are people who are highly likely to have already experienced trauma, and may well never be able to return to their home countries, the human consequences of being dumped in an eternal state of limbo will be dire. We know from years of working with people on long and complex routes to settlement, as well as recent research, that living in prolonged administrative limbo heightens poverty risks and has severe consequences for mental and physical health. But at least a route to settlement exists for this group.
And it doesn’t end here. The impact of this Bill won’t just be felt by those who have reached the UK seeking safety, but by society at large. Already overstretched and underfunded local authorities, statutory services and charities will be the ones who have to pick up the pieces and provide support to a new group of people indefinitely prevented from ever accessing employment and mainstream support.
In short, this Bill promises to strip people seeking safety from any form of support if they’ve reached the UK in unauthorised ways; it will push up rough sleeping numbers, as well as the number of people living in poverty and exposed to exploitation; and it will drop the burden of supporting thousands of people every year on a sector that is already struggling to meet overwhelming needs.
Despite the Government’s commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, and the progress driven by Everyone In, the number of people sleeping rough is climbing again, driven by cost of living pressures. The number of migrants who are sleeping rough is also growing, and faster than the number of UK nationals in the same situation. This Bill places a bomb under this commitment, as well as future commitments that this or other governments may wish to make, around reducing poverty and child poverty, or promoting integration and social cohesion.
It’s laudable that Labour has so far opposed the Bill. But they must go further. What’s needed is a commitment to repeal it in its entirety should Labour form the next government, as well as a reaffirmation of the UK’s commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- Josephine Whitaker-Yilmaz, is the Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Praxis, for Migrants and Refugees.
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