The government keeps insisting that its new Nationality and Borders Bill is “fair”. It even tries to argue that the Bill will be beneficial for refugees and provide new opportunities. But, as Boris Johnson and his colleagues know full well, the opposite is true.
Johnson’s government has torn up long-standing commitments to help those fleeing torture and oppression. With this Bill, they are seeking to incorporate cruelty into law. It would perhaps be simpler if they were to put their cards on the table and call it what it is: an Anti-Refugee Bill, which deliberately sets out to deny protection for those we could help.
With its new Bill, the government threatens that, from now on, it will criminalise or jail those who flee torture and oppression and risk their lives to seek asylum in the UK, if their journey was not pre-approved. A small number are granted official resettlement, which is welcome – though the numbers could and should be much higher. But the Refugee Convention could not be clearer: governments may not impose penalties on asylum seekers, however they arrive, providing that they “show good cause”. In other words, what matters is the “why”, not the “how”.
David, who fled torture and persecution in his native Cameroon in 2014, is now rebuilding his life as a refugee in the UK, and works on the Covid-19 testing that helps keep this country safe. If this new legislation were in place today, he would be jailed and deported. It is hardly surprising that David – and countless others like him, part of the fabric of Britain and often working in the NHS – finds the government’s proposals to be “deplorable, heartbreaking”.
As if seeking to create a new dystopia, the government throws out ever-more random and cruel suggestions for how to address the issues: offshoring those fleeing oppression to distant countries or specks in the Atlantic; constructing camps which would make integration impossible to achieve; and paving the way for people like David to be sent back to the risk of torture or death.
The government talks about improving and streamlining the process of decision-making. That would be welcome, to reduce the current years of painful limbo that so many experience. But the problems rest above all with the government itself, as a string of reports by NGOs and government agencies in recent years has repeatedly made clear. Instead of trying to solve problems of its own making, the government seeks to scapegoat the very people it should be helping.
With bitter irony, the Bill has been published just weeks ahead of the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention, which Britain helped to shape in the aftermath of the Holocaust and which should be a moment of celebration – for what Britain has done in the decades since the treaty was signed, and for what those refugees have given back to Britain since.
Johnson has form when it comes to misdescribing the legality of his government’s own proposals. Earlier this year, he and his colleagues attempted to push through proposals for torture impunity, while denying that that was what they were doing. They gave way only at the eleventh hour when this became unsustainable.
With luck and determination, such a victory for basic humanity and justice is achievable again. Unsurprisingly but hearteningly, polls show that Britons want to protect those who are fleeing war and persecution. Hundreds of groups have come together at record speed as part of a new Together With Refugees coalition, to ensure that compassion, decency and truth win through. That battle has only just begun.
Steve Crawshaw is Policy & Advocacy Director at Freedom from Torture