Editor's note: This article was originally published on Feb. 7, 2022, and has been regularly updated to reflect the progress of the Bill through parliament.
From offshore processing centres based on remote oil rigs, to a “marine fence” or floating wall in the English Channel, Priti Patel has floated numerous ideas to stop refugees from making it to British shores during her time as the UK's home secretary.
Her ideas have frequently been described by activists and campaigners as "draconian,""dystopian,""barbaric," and have generally been met by those fighting for the human rights of refugees with shock and dismay.
Many of the Home Secretary's ideas have not been greenlit. But on April 27, 2022, parliament approved the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill — to bring about sweeping reforms to the UK’s immigration and citizenship system. Now parliament has approved the bill it will pass into law.
Dubbed the "Anti-Refugee Bill", it was passed by a vote of 212 to 157 and will criminalise entering the UK without a visa as well as allow the government to strip individuals of their British citizenship without their knowledge. It means that refugees who attempt to enter the country in a way that is deemed illegal could be subject to prison sentences.
“It truly is a bleak day for refugees fleeing conflict and persecution,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International's refugees and migrant rights programme director for the UK.
Oxfam and Save the Children are among more than 200 charities and organisations that have said they will challenge the Bill's outcomes. They wrote in a statement that the legislation “rips up internationally recognised rights for people fleeing war and persecution, and will criminalise thousands of refugees."
One part of the new Bill includes plans to send people deemed to have entered the UK unlawfully to Rwanda — the first 50 people were served notice on May 14 that they would be sent to the African country. This is taking place despite concerns raised in a report by the Home Office over the treatment of LGBTQI+ people. The report said investigations pointed to “ill treatment” of this group being “more than one-off”.
However, the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is already facing its first legal challenge after the charity, Freedom from Torture, requested lawyers to ask the government to disclose information regarding the policy which they believe is contrary to international law.
Meanwhile, the need for safe routes to asylum is far from being resolved. Last November, 27 people died trying to cross the English Channel from northern France, the biggest single loss of life since records of boat crossings began.
One proposal in the Bill will allow the Home Secretary to strip people of their British citizenship if the government believes they are eligible for citizenship elsewhere, a move that will predominantly affect ethnic minorities.
3 Facts About the Nationality and Borders Bill
- Asylum-seekers arriving by boats will face up to four years in prison
- Almost 6 million people will be eligible to have their British citizenship taken away without notification
- It opens up off-shore dentention for refugees and asylum-seekers who are deemed to have entered the country “illegally”
Here are some of the main issues with the Bill that campaigners and activists have been calling out.
It Could Be Windrush 2.0.
Now that the Bill has been approved, this will widen government powers to strip people of their British citizenship.
Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill will remove the requirement of the government to notify someone of a decision to take away their nationality if it was “impractical or a threat to national security.” Maya Foa, the director of the legal NGO Reprieve, said the clause will “effectively deny you an appeal” if your citizenship was removed in secret.
An analysis by the New Statesman found that nearly 6 million people are eligible to see their citizenship stripped without warning. That number includes two in every five people from non-white ethnic minorities (41%) compared with only 5% of white people living in the UK.
Shami Chakrabarti, a human rights lawyer, and Simon Woolley, the director of the racial justice nonprofit Operation Black Vote, have written that for British people of colour this part of the legislation “feels personal.”
“Our citizenship is precarious and conditional in a way that isn’t the case for many others,” they added.
While the government has said this will only happen in “exceptional circumstances,” people fear mistakes and bad decisions on the part of the government. Speaking to the BBC, Leo Power, a student, said he protested against the Bill because it could lead to another Windrush scandal — where hundreds of people, mostly from the Caribbean who had lived in Britain for decades, were wrongfully deported or denied legal rights.
"What about Windrush? Did those people do any crimes, did they commit anything unlawful?" he said, adding, “I'm half Dominican — some of my aunties were born there and they have that Windrush fear."
It Will Criminalise People Seeking Asylum.
A big part of the Bill is to strongly discourage people from arriving “irregularly” to the UK (for example, arriving via boat or hidden in a lorry) without having applied for asylum beforehand.
But as many refugee organisations have pointed out — it is extremely difficult for people fleeing desperate situations such as war, torture, and persecution, to apply through formal channels before setting off.
Research from the Refugee Council last November found that the vast majority of people arriving on small boats across the English Channel are likely to be people with legitimate claims to refugee status. They found that 91% of the people who had crossed between January 2020 and May 2021 were mostly from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, and Yemen — all of which are countries where human rights abuses are common.
However, asylum seekers arriving by boat will now face up to four years in prison for “knowingly entering the UK without permission”. There will also be harsher sentences for people smugglers organising the journeys.
For those who avoid being jailed or immediately deported and succeed at getting refugee status, the Nationality and Borders Bill will introduce a two-tier system — distinguishing between those who arrive by boat and those who apply through a formal resettlement scheme.
The Bill notes: “How someone arrives in the UK will have an impact on the type of status granted in the UK if their asylum claim is successful."
“People only flee when they really have to.”— Refugee Action 🧡 (@RefugeeAction) February 1, 2022
Marzieh sought asylum after fleeing Iran and has worked as an NHS nurse in the pandemic.
We can continue to save lives and enrich the UK through refugee protection, but the #AntiRefugeeBill stands in the way.https://t.co/5DdMhOhppf
Rather than streamlining UK immigration processes, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) says these changes will “increase delays within the Home Office, add to the backlog of asylum claims, and leave many in limbo” while at the same time presenting a “fundamental challenge to the principle of refugee protection in the UK.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also issued a statement in response to the Bill, saying that it will “undermine the 1951 Refugee Convention” which protects refugees under international law, both in the UK and beyond.
It Will Create Offshore Detention Centres.
Yes, it's as bad as it sounds. As part of the Bill’s bid to curb migrant crossings of the English Channel, the UK government is proposing to send those who are deemed to have entered the country “illegally” to offshore detention centres.
In fact, this is already becoming a reality, with the UK having just signed an agreement with Rwanda. Those sent to the East African country will be detained in centres while their asylum claims are being considered. If they are granted refugee status, they will be allowed to live in Rwanda but regardless of the outcome of their application, they will not be flown back to the UK.
This is apparently designed to incentivise people to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in.
But the nonprofit Detention Action, which advocates for people in immigration detention, argues that offshore processing would mean men, women, and children could be flown from the UK to another country to be “locked up in a detention camp indefinitely.”
The centres would be likely “hidden from public view and almost impossible to access for journalists and human rights monitors,” they add.
It Will Make it Even Harder for Women and LGBTQ+ People to Prove They Need Asylum.
The planned law will make it harder for LGBTQ+ people to apply for asylum — and it’s already very difficult. People already have to go through inhumane “tests” to prove sexual orientation or gender identity and have to prove a “reasonable degree of likelihood” of persecution in their own country.
But these new rules will make the burden of proof higher and shorten the deadline for providing evidence — which can take time to process and speak about.
This will also disproportionately impact women and girls fleeing gender-based violence. For this reason, 50 women’s organisations wrote to Priti Patel on International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women underlining the "cruel and discriminatory" impact the Bill would have on women.
“More women are likely to be wrongly refused asylum as a result of this bill, which means more are likely to end up destitute and pushed into abusive situations,” Priscilla Dudhia from Women for Refugee Womentold Stylist.
What Action Can You Take?
You can sign the Refugee Council’s petition calling for more safe routes for refugees, and can also write to your MP through their website. You can also donate or show support on social media for campaigns by Refugee Action and Detention Action.
Global Citizen has also teamed up with Choose Love, a nonprofit that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and advocates for refugee rights globally, to demand a UK that welcomes refugees. You can sign our petition, calling for a fair, efficient asylum process rooted in protection and dignity that enables people to reach safety and rebuild their lives as part of our communities, here.
The human rights laid out in the UN's Global Goals are for everyone. Yet marginalized communities — including refugees — are being denied these rights. Join Global Citizens around the world in taking action to help achieve the Global Goals and the human rights outlined by those goals equitably for all people, everywhere. You can start now, either by taking action here on our website, or by downloading the Global Citizen app.