Contempt for migrants is being enshrined into British law

Offshore detention facilities, redefining the category of ‘refugee’ and legal exemptions for border guards. If allowed to pass, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill spells dark days ahead for asylum seekers in the UK. Miles Ellingham reports.

Patel (pictured) has sought to add a provision to her bill that would grant border force staff ‘immunity’ for any migrant deaths during ‘turnaround tactics’ – where officers force small boats back into French waters.
Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

Abdul thumbs the straw of his orange juice nervously. He tells me he’s 21, but he looks younger. Abdul came to the UK as a teenager to escape Syria’s civil war, but his asylum claim was denied by the Home Office, who insist he is Egyptian. Now, with all appeals exhausted and with no country agreeing to take him in, he exists in a strange state of limbo: he has no right to work and is barred from using the National Health Service, accessing public housing or claiming benefits.

‘I wanna ask you a question,’ he says, over a plate of grilled fish– we’ve met outside a restaurant on Edgware Road, London. ‘If the government said to people in this country, “You’re not allowed to have a house, you’re not allowed to work, you’re not allowed anything…” What will they do?’

Abdul’s purgatory is emblematic of the problems inherent to the British asylum system: its backlog of cases and its cavernous, human-sized cracks. Too often, vulnerable refugees like Abdul are cut adrift from society, forced to work off the books at below the minimum wage. Thousands of people have to wait years for a final decision on their claim and are often left destitute.

The UK asylum system is in need of sweeping reforms – but not the kind the British government is looking to make. In July, Home Secretary Priti Patel, took to the floor of the Commons to tell colleagues that ‘the British people have had enough… Enough of open borders and uncontrolled immigration… Enough of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees. Enough of adults pretending to be children to claim asylum.’ Patel’s speech came as she unveiled her ‘landmark’ Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed its second reading in the summer, and has recently been called-out by senior UK lawyers for breaching both international and domestic law.

When it comes to immigration, the breezy Boris Johnson boosterism of Britain ‘regaining its place in the world’ melts away, replaced by cold-hearted state bureaucracy and a determination to punish outsiders. This determination is personified by Home Secretary Patel, who has recently sought to add a provision to her bill that would grant border force staff ‘immunity’ for any migrant deaths during ‘turnaround tactics’ – where officers force small boats back into French waters. Her bill would also potentially give the government the power to ‘scientifically verify’ asylum seekers, using X-rays and DNA samples.

Home Secretary Patel has recently sought to add a provision to her bill that would grant border force staff ‘immunity’ for any migrant deaths during ‘turnaround tactics’ – where officers force small boats back into French waters

The UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention is a lengthy, jargon-filled document that emerged from the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UK is among its 146 signatories. One of the most important sections is Article 31 which prevents states from penalizing refugees ‘on account of their illegal entry or presence… provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause’, and come ‘directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened’. In essence, it states that the act of seeking asylum should not be criminalized. Of course, ‘without delay’, and ‘directly’ are both operative phrases here, but specialist judges have recognized that the terms should be interpreted flexibly, taking into account the ‘myriad experiences of refugees’.

The Nationality and Borders Bill looks to redefine Article 31 in the UK, and create a two-tier asylum system. Central to this is Clause 10 of Patel’s new bill, which splits refugees into two distinct groups. Refugees who arrive in the UK directly, without passing through a third country and present themselves to the authorities without delay, will be defined as ‘Group 1’ and given protection under the Convention. Everyone else is defined as ‘Group 2’ and, like Abdul, will face every possible obstacle to being granted asylum status. In effect, they will be criminalized.

As refugees often don’t have access to their own passport – let alone a visa – the vast majority of asylum seekers coming to Britain will be defined as ‘Group 2’. These refugees will have their rights severely restricted, including the claim for ‘family reunion’ which is often the only safe path for vulnerable women and children. A spokesperson from the Refugee Council tells me that over the last five years ‘more than 25,000 people arrived via refugee family reunion – and 90 per cent of them were women and children. Thousands of refugees who ordinarily would have been able to come to the UK in a very safe and legal way will now not be able to do so.’

Another cruel facet of British asylum is the use of immigration detention and ‘initial accommodation’. Often outsourced to private companies like Clearsprings, Serco and Mears Group, these ‘housing’ facilities regularly make the news headlines due to their dire conditions. In June, Napier – a converted army barracks in Kent – was deemed ‘unlawful’ by the high court after about 200 people there contracted Covid-19. Penally, another converted barracks in Pembrokeshire, was closed in the spring of 2021 after inspectors branded it ‘filthy’ and ‘impoverished’.

Kamil was recently held at Napier. ‘The moment you arrive, the feeling you have is that this is not a camp but a prison,’ he told me. ‘There are layers of fear: the hygienic situation is one layer – you might contract Covid. The second is that you do not have knowledge of your future. There’s no horizon.’

Kamil’s experience is by no means exceptional – and it could become far worse. Clause 26 of the Nationality and Borders Bill allows Britain to set up offshore immigration processing centres. It’s difficult to know where exactly these might be located, but according to a July report from The Guardian, ‘Ascension Island, disused ferries and abandoned oil rigs have all been mooted in leaked reports as potential destinations.’ Just this week, The Times reported that ministers are ‘hoping to seal an agreement to fly Channel-crossing migrants to Albania’, a claim the Deputy Prime Minister neglected to deny when asked about it on Sky. However, the report was later refuted by Albania’s foreign minister, Olta Xhaçka, and its ambassador to the UK.

To get an idea of how this policy might be implemented we can look to the Australian government, who in September 2012 began sending asylum seekers who arrived by boat to offshore centres on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea where they were held indefinitely. Ellie, an Iranian journalist who fled the country in 2013, and is now settled in the US, told me that she was kept on Nauru for six years. Her experience sounds more akin to that of a penal colony. ‘The detention centre was built on a former mining site so there was no wind and it was super hot. There were these nylon tents with no air-con. It was like a microwave for humans. There was no privacy. Even when my father died I had no privacy to cry.

In 2015 there were rumours of a new contract to keep us there for 10 years.’ Ellie went on, ‘that provoked the first death by suicide, when Omid Masoumali set himself on fire.’ Masoumali, also an Iranian refugee, had spent three years on Nauru. ‘He was talking to people from the UN and he set himself on fire in front of their eyes. He was burnt about 50 per cent, but they kept him for more than 20 hours in Nauru hospital, which is a dirty place with poor services.’ In November, a Queensland Coroners Court inquest suggested that the slow transfer to an Australian hospital contributed to Masoumali’s death. For Ellie, this delay was more than just administrative failure, it was a message: ‘You will not get to Australia even if you are dying.’

Every day the UK’s Nationality and Borders Bill edges closer to becoming law. The Home Office has a legacy of punishing migrants, often with enthusiastic support from the British media. You need only look back as far as former Home Secretary (and subsequent Prime Minister) Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ strategy to get a sense of this. However, Patel’s new bill could change the very nature of British asylum – and it threatens the rights of some of the most vulnerable people on Earth. The UK’s contempt for asylum seekers and migrants is a moral stain on the country. The Nationality and Borders Bill takes that contempt and enshrines it in law.