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Priti Patel’s controversial immigration plans pass through parliament despite warnings of harm to refugees

‘Despicable’: Aid charities warn of suffering for those fleeing war and persecution

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 27 April 2022 22:25 BST

The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has warned that Priti Patel’s controversial Immigration and Nationalities Bill, which completed its passage through parliament today, could “dramatically weaken” international systems for protecting those fleeing war and persecution.

The legislation was completed with just a day to spare after the House of Lords gave up a rearguard action to try to soften its most punitive measures.

Aid charity Oxfam described the bill as a “devastating blow for families fleeing conflict and persecution”, while Medecins Sans Frontieres branded it “despicable”.

The bill will allow indefinite detention, pushbacks at sea and offshore processing, with the government already having struck a deal to deport migrants to Rwanda to make their claims.

It will make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally and allow for asylum seekers to be treated differently based on how they entered the country.

In a process known as “parliamentary ping-pong” successive efforts by the unelected chamber to amend the legislation were overturned by the Commons.

And there were cries of “shame” in the Upper House as peers rejected by 212 to 157 a last-ditch bid to ensure provisions in the legislation complied with the UK’s international obligations towards refugees. Shortly afterwards, a sparsely-attended House of Commons was told that it could now go forward for Royal Assent.

Ms Patel has cast the bill as a means of stemming the flow of migrants making the perilous crossing of the English Channel by small boat.

But UN high commissioner Filippo Grandi said it was “disappointing” that the new law would seek to “deter the seeking of asylum by relegating most refugees to a new, lesser status with few rights and a constant threat of removal”.

Mr Grandi said the UK was a country which “rightly prides itself on its long history of welcoming and protecting refugees”.

But he contrasted the current administration’s stance with the willingness of some of the world’s poorest nations to take in millions of refugees from neighbouring states, as well as the “extraordinary solidarity” shown elsewhere in Europe towards those fleeing war in Ukraine.

“This latest UK government decision risks dramatically weakening a system that has for decades provided protection and the chance of a new life to so many desperate people,” said Mr Grandi.

The chief executive of the British Red Cross, Mike Adamson, said the “deeply disappointing” legislation would have a “detrimental” impact on people seeking asylum in the UK.

“We believe a person’s need for protection and therefore their ability to claim asylum should be judged on the dangers they have faced, and not on how they enter this country,” said Mr Adamson.

“Alongside the recent announcement to remove people to Rwanda on a one-way ticket, there are ever increasing barriers to refugees receiving protection in the UK.”

MSF UK spokesperson Sophie McCann said: “We are utterly appalled that this despicable bill has passed. It will create a two-tier system that penalises men, women, and children for arriving to the UK via irregular means, regardless of the fact that safe and official routes are virtually non-existent.”

And Sam Nadel of Oxfam said: “The passing of this heinous bill is a devastating blow for families fleeing conflict and persecution.

“The government should be protecting, not punishing, refugees. Alongside the immoral plans to offshore our asylum responsibilities to Rwanda, it is yet another example of the UK reneging on its promises to refugees.”

- Legislation to introduce voter ID and give ministers powers to direct the independent Electoral Commission watchdog also passed after peers voted down last-ditch bids to amend it, as ministers battled to force the last remnants of the government’s agenda into law before the parliamentary year finishes on Thursday.

The House of Lords voted by 202 to 181 against a move to ensure the Commission is “not bound by” strategic priorities set by the government, despite Conservative former minister Baroness Altman warning of “a significant risk of gerrymandering elections”.

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Wallace warned that provisions of Elections Bill, which require voters to show official ID before casting their ballots in Britain but make it easier for expats to vote from abroad, were “very odd, and not entirely democratic”. An eleventh-hour bid to allow voters to use their polling cards as ID was defeated by 208 to 150.

Labour frontbencher Baroness Hayman said: “The government has simply got it wrong on requiring voter ID to be presented at polling stations. We are disappointed and unhappy that there has been absolutely no movement whatsoever from the government on this.”

She added: “There is clear concern right across this House about the undermining of the independence of the Electoral Commission.”

Tom Brake, the director of the Unlock Democracy thinktank, said it was “a dire day for democracy when the government takes powers for itself to control the elections watchdog.”

He said: “This is a slippery slope that could lead to the end of free and fair elections in the UK.”

Naomi Smith of democracy campaign group Best for Britain said: “Tonight was the last chance to protect the independence of the elections watchdog and with it free and fair elections in the UK.

“There is now an urgent need to remove this government and undo the damage they have wrought on our institutions and public trust in politics. Opposition parties must work together to make this a reality.”

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