The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill is as flawed as it is inhumane. It’s a clear signal that the UK government is more than willing to turn its back on some of the most vulnerable people on Earth, hitting a new low with the risk of criminalising even RNLI lifeboats saving people from drowning in the Channel.
A less publicised area of the bill focuses significantly on asylum accommodation centres, suggesting an expansion of their use and a move away from community accommodation. But as well as inhibiting integration, and the fact that institutional accommodation for asylum seekers has been so squalid they’ve been found unlawful, these proposals pose a significant terror risk from the far right.
Last year, a shortage of accommodation and compliance with Covid restrictions saw the Home Office become reliant on housing asylum seekers in contingency accommodation, using hotels, B&Bs and disused barracks. Almost immediately, the far-right seized on this to reignite their bored and fractured groups. We saw the rise of so-called “citizen journalists”, a group of activists joined by organised far-right groups like Britain First, who filmed the beaches of the south coast and “hunted” arriving migrants and asylum seekers.
Their videos, some showing arrivals being chased by cameras and others featuring angry activists ranting in the lobbies of bed & breakfast hotels, quickly spread across far-right social media platforms and whipped anti-immigrant activists into a peak of anger. Each new video has served to confirm the far-right’s belief that Britain is being “invaded”, while directly stirring fear among asylum seekers placed in hotels and barracks.
This threatening behaviour, with far-right groups actively breaking into accommodation sites and approaching boats with the sole purpose of harassment, underlines a growing threat from the far right. Proposals for replacing community accommodation for asylum seekers with out-of-town accommodation centres, not only inhibits integration and traps residents in isolated, detention-like settings, it also poses a risk for further harassment and violence.
Moreover, the Home Office should be aware of these risks, given recent charges against members of a new terror-advocating, far-right group that has allegedly been recruiting minors to its ranks via Instagram and Telegram. Last year, research by Hope not Hate revealed that the leader of an extreme far-right group had posted that he was planning an attack against migrants arriving in Dover, and received support from other members in the group. Others similarly stressed their willingness to commit violent attacks against migrants, discussing how to acquire weapons and how to hide their political views in order to enlist in the military.
Far-right extremism remains the UK’s fastest-growing terror threat. In this light, the very real threat posed by the far-right against asylum accommodation, and the increased risk with the proposed move from community accommodation to accommodation centres, should be taken seriously as an active terror threat. At the height of Europe’s “refugee crisis” during 2015-16, the German organisation Pro Asyl counted 126 arson attacks on refugee accommodation – one every three days.
Yet the Home Office seems to have not yet grasped the potential threat that accommodation centres could pose. Having reached out to accommodation providers and asylum organisations offering direct support over the last year, Hope not Hate found many were concerned about the threat of the far right, yet were given no guidance on what they could do to mitigate risks.
In the Home Office’s equality impact assessment for using Ministry of Defence sites to accommodate asylum seekers – including Napier barracks – Hope not Hate found no mention of the far-right threat, or even local opposition. It found no mentions of “terror", “extremism/extremist” or “far right” in the UKVI Suitability Assessment for Contingency Accommodation, nor in a letter from the home secretary, Priti Patel, on institutional accommodation and documents relating to Napier barracks from March 2021. It appears the threat has not been considered at all in the decision to move towards accommodation centres and away from community accommodation, where these threats are more easily mitigated.
In a hostile climate, where migrants and refugees have faced daily harassment from organised far-right political groups, the home secretary, it appears, has offered no safeguards. Rather, it seems she has pursued a line of inflammatory language that incubates the far right, relentlessly using the term “illegal immigrant”, and focusing on small vessel crossings, despite the numbers arriving via these routes still being very small.
The Home Office must take the threat of the far-right seriously when making a decision on accommodation for asylum seekers. Instead of ramping up hostile language and fuelling enmity and division with an inhumane and unworkable system – a system that puts asylum seekers at even greater risk in institutional asylum accommodation centres – the government should offer decent housing in communities across the country, allowing people to integrate and become part of our country.
If the Home Office is serious about keeping people in our country safe, it would rethink this unworkable Nationality and Borders Bill, and start putting some compassion into its policymaking: the starting point for any such policy should be the preservation of human life.
Sarah Owen is MP for Luton North and vice-chair of the Hope not Hate parliamentary group
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