It was in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the full horrors of the bloodshed emerged, that countries came together to ensure that there would be international protection for those who suffered persecution.
This led to the creation of the Refugee Convention in 1951. While it was signed under the postwar Labour government, led Clement Attlee, the document became one of the foundation stones upon which all postwar British governments have stood.
When I wrote a biography of Attlee, I never thought any government would stand outside that fine British tradition. It is to the Conservatives’ shame that the United Nations Refugee Agency has said that the government’s plans breach commitments made in that convention, 70 years ago.
After dismissing as “gesture politics” the decision of the England men’s football team to take the knee, siding with those booing them, and breaking its commitment to supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable during a global pandemic, it was difficult to see how the government could sink any lower. Yet it has managed it with its Nationality and Borders Bill, which is the latest instalment in the Conservative culture war.
Nobody disputes that we need to prevent people risking their lives in the English Channel. When Priti Patel was a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2019, its report warned of exactly this outcome: “A policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”
This lesson has not been heeded. This is a bill that is both wrong, and wrong-headed. The home secretary argues that the asylum system is broken. I agree. The Conservatives have broken it over the past 11 years. During that time, the share of asylum applications that received an initial decision within six months fell from 87 per cent in 2014 to 20 per cent in 2019.
The reality is that this bill will do nothing to fix this. Instead it means the government will turn their backs on some of the most vulnerable people on Earth. So aggressive is this legislation, it could criminalise the RNLI for saving people at sea – and had this bill been in place when Sir Nicholas Winton was rescuing hundreds of children from the Holocaust on the Kindertransport, it would have risked him being criminalised for his life-saving actions.
The bill also undermines important protections for victims of human trafficking. This is a vile crime that we must do everything to tackle – yet it makes it harder for victims to access support, music to the ears of modern slavery gangs. Tougher sentences for criminals are necessary, but there has to be support for victims.
This bill contains nothing that will help address the activity of gangs that are running amok in France, making money out of desperate people. What is needed is a properly resourced effort to bring the gangs to justice. The cruel irony of this government’s approach is that it is weak on taking action against criminal gangs – and brutal when it comes to orphaned children from war zones.
The plans even fail on their own terms. The government does not have any way to replace the Dublin III Accords, which allowed those seeking asylum to be returned to safe countries. Without this, the whole asylum process will be jammed, which is in nobody’s interests.
As ever with this home secretary, the bill is an attempt to talk tough, but will deliver nothing. Labour will not stand back and allow this government to pass such divisive and ill-judged legislation that will damage Britain’s authority across the world.
Nick Thomas-Symonds is the shadow home secretary and Welsh Labour MP for Torfaen