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Boris Johnson seems determined to renege on Britain’s humanitarian commitments to survivors of torture and refugees in ways that could have consequences for years to come. That immoral carelessness, which we can expect more of in parliament this week, is bad for Britain and the world.
An authoritative legal opinion describes the Nationality and Borders Bill, which comes back to the House of Commons on Tuesday, as the worst assault on international refugee law that this country has seen. The UN refugee agency says the bill would “undermine the principles on which the refugee system is founded”.
The government denies it all. It claims that the plans are “in accord with our international obligations”. More often than not, such inventions go unchallenged. It is as though we have been collectively browbeaten into accepting inhumane policies as inevitable. But that silence may finally be coming to an end.
The tragedies in the Channel in recent weeks – hopes and lives cut short, in moments of unthinkable horror – should have been a wake-up call for the government on its refusal to provide safe routes to the UK to flee repression. The government seems eager, however, to deny its obvious shared responsibility for the death of 24-year-old Maryam Nuri, desperate to join her fiance in the UK, as well as the 26 others who lost their lives at the same time. Boris Johnson is determined to double down, even though the government’s own analysis suggests a political crackdown makes dangerous journeys more likely, not less.
The government praises the importance of the Refugee Convention, created in response to the deadly failures of the 1930s and partly shaped by the UK. Yet the anti-refugee bill seeks to turn back the clock by introducing a two-tier system which would divide into two categories the tiny number who somehow manage to obtain papers that let them reach the UK directly and the great majority who, after fleeing repression or torture, have no alternative but to take long and dangerous journeys to Britain’s shores.
Those people would now be criminalised because they are the “wrong sort” of refugee and risk being sent back to persecution – even though those who arrived in that way in the past have been honoured by everybody from Priti Patel to the Queen for their contributions to society.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is just one element in the government’s wholesale assault on rights. Justice secretary Dominic Raab emphasises the importance of rule of law, while in the same breath proclaiming his determination to “overhaul” (in other words, weaken) the Human Rights Act. The judicial review bill, now going through parliament, will make it harder to challenge government actions, and seeks to throw out safeguards for refugees. Meanwhile, the new policing bill would restrict the right to protest, in ways that would once have seemed unthinkable. All of which suggests an unstoppable rollback of rights.
But polling shows a clear majority of people want basic rights to be upheld, including sanctuary for those who need it. We have already seen in other contexts that this government, despite its 80-seat majority, may not be as impregnable as it wants us to believe.
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Last year, the government tried to push through impunity for British troops, with a “presumption against prosecution” for torture and other war crimes committed abroad after five years. As with the anti-refugee bill, the government insisted the Overseas Operations Bill was in compliance with international obligations, repeatedly telling critics that they should “just read the bill”. That tactic eventually backfired, when more people did indeed read the bill. Senior generals, decorated veterans and a former head of Nato joined with torture survivors and others to insist the impunity provisions be struck down. Following a defeat in the House of Lords, the bill was amended to exclude the most grievous international war crimes such as torture from the five-year limitation.
That victory against impunity, remarkable though it was, does not need to stand in isolation. In response to the anti-refugee bill and the noxious narratives which drive it forward, hundreds of groups large and small have come together to ensure a more humane approach is taken under the banner of #TogetherWithRefugees. Former immigration ministers Caroline Nokes and Damian Green have both spoken out, calling for an approach that is compassionate and fair.
So far, the government digs deeper while continuing to praise the Refugee Convention even as it seeks to tear it up. But, as the unexpected collapse of the torture impunity proposals showed, the prime minister is more fragile than his bluster sometimes suggests. This government relies on popular indifference to get its way. Humane commitment is what it fears most.
Steve Crawshaw is policy and advocacy director at Freedom from Torture