Read, Debate: Engage.
All opinions in this section are those of the author(s) and do not necessarly reflect the opinion of FairPlanet.
May 30, 2022

How the UK turned its back on the Refugee Convention

Seeking asylum is a human right. It should never be limited to the chosen few. 

Yet on 5 May, the UK government succeeded in turning the Nationality and Borders Bill into law, setting new rules for asylum seekers in the UK and introducing a two-tier system that treats people differently based on how they arrive in the country. 

The Bill’s passing marks a nadir in the UK’s toxic relationship with asylum. Widely condemned by charities, politicians and the public, the new law sees the UK turn its back on the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that asylum seekers must not be differentiated based on mode of arrival. 

At a time when the tragedy of displacement has been brought into sharp focus by Russia'a invasion of Ukraine and subsequent wave of Ukrainian refugees seeking safety across Europe, the government is pressing ahead with a Bill that treats displaced people with contempt. 

Against this backdrop, it is important to assess the current state of the asylum system, shedding light on the impact the Bill will have on people seeking sanctuary in the UK. 

The Nationality and Borders Bill

Dubbed the ‘Anti-Refugee Bill’, the Nationality and Borders Bill undermines the entire concept of refugee protection by dividing asylum seekers into two distinct categories: deserving and undeserving.  

The deserving are those who win the lottery ticket of a place on an official resettlement scheme, as they will be granted the usual level of protection and support. The undeserving are those who arrive via so-called 'unauthorised routes' - such as life-threatening Channel crossings - as they will be criminalised, penalised and face the prospect of being offshored thousands of miles away for "processing." 

Regarding criminalisation, the Bill will make all who arrive without "valid entry clearance" guilty of an offence and liable to prosecution. This focus on 'valid entry clearance' is significant: the majority of asylum seekers in the UK arrive via so-called 'unauthorised routes' and thus do not have entry clearance, rendering the Bill an attack on almost all people fleeing persecution. 

Those who arrive via these routes will also be deemed inadmissible; in other words, denied protection and left at extreme risk of destitution. The Home Secretary can now provide different types of accommodation to the different categories of asylum seekers, with institutional accommodation akin to the infamous Napier barracks being a likely outcome for those in the undeserving category.

The Rwanda plan

But while a likely outcome, it is certainly not the only outcome. In recent weeks, the government has revealed harrowing plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country dogged by allegations of human rights abuses ranging from enforced disappearances to torture. 

People who arrive in the UK outside 'safe and legal routes' will be treated like human cargo and shipped to the central African country for "processing" - a term that suggests they will only remain there for the time it takes their claim to be decided upon. 

In reality, those with successful claims will receive permanent residency in Rwanda and will be prevented from returning to the UK, compounding their suffering and exposing them to further misery and abuse.

The plan’s reception has been incredibly damning, with the UNHCR labelling it unlawful, prejudiced and impractical. It is a move that, alongside the Bill in general, sees the UK abdicate its commitment to the international protection system by limiting protection based not on need, but on a refugee’s method of travel. 

This is highly significant. The root causes of forced displacement are all linked by a common factor: suffering. Yet the government is choosing to ignore this factor to further its creation of a hostile, punitive system. 

The support of charities 

None of this inhumanity has gone ahead without a fight. As the government’s hostility has intensified, charities and other civil society groups have stepped up their pursuit of dignity, equality and justice. 

City of Sanctuary, a charity dedicated to building a more welcoming UK for asylum seekers, has campaigned tirelessly against the Bill and will continue its work in spite of the increasing challenges faced. 

Hannah Green, communications manager at City of Sanctuary, said this regarding the Bill and the impact it will have: 

"The Nationality and Borders Bill is cruel, plain and simple. It represents one of the biggest roll backs of refugee rights that this country has ever seen - it will punish refugees who have been left with no other option than to find safety by taking dangerous journeys to reach the UK, and it will criminalise others for simply trying. This bill is completely at odds with the UN Refugee Convention, will see the UK roll back on our international obligations and will cause catastrophic human harm."

"Our networks provide welcome, support and empowering opportunities to people seeking sanctuary in the UK - this bill has yet to come into force and yet we are already aware of its damaging effects," she added. "Vulnerable people already contending with complex trauma are now living in fear of being deported or separated from loved ones."

"We have heard reports of people refusing to take any form of transport in case it's a trick and they are forcibly taken to Rwanda. For some, the fear is too great and they abscond. This puts them at terrible risk of exploitation and trafficking."

"Our networks have shown time and time again that when people seeking sanctuary are welcomed and supported in our communities, everyone benefits," Green Concluded. "Similarly, by refusing people this chance, by keeping groups separated, by demonising and criminalising vulnerable people, everyone will suffer."

The fightback has now been taken to the courtroom. Human rights charity Detention Action, alongside Care4Calais, the PCS trade union and Duncan Lewis Public Law have launched a legal challenge against the Rwanda plan aimed at exposing it for what it is: an inhumane, unworkable policy designed to appease certain voters by appearing tough on immigration. 

Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: “Priti Patel’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda are not just cruel, callous and inhumane: they’re unworkable. 

"We have real concerns our members will be put at risk by trying to implement it. Previously, encounters with those crossing the Channel on small boats have been broadly peaceful, but they may not remain so if there is a serious threat of removal to Rwanda."

Whether the challenge will succeed remains to be seen. But the fact that the UK’s relationship with asylum has deteriorated to such an extent raises serious questions. The right to seek asylum is exactly that - a right; universal and open to all. Yet the Nationality and Borders Bill is predicated on the premise that some people are more deserving of this right than others. 

Whilst it is difficult not to despair at the current landscape, there is certainly cause for hope. Recent weeks have shown that regardless of the inhumanity that rears its head, it will not go unchecked.

The rights of refugees will not be torn apart without a fight, and this fight will continue until compassion takes precedence. 

Cameron Boyle is a media officer for a leading charity and a Migrant Destitution Fund volunteer.

Image by Philip Robins