This week, in an advent season already punctuated by tragic deaths in the Channel, the government will be pushing through the Nationality and Borders Bill. Their intention is clear: to divide refugees between those who are “deserving” and “undeserving”. Those plucked from refugee camps, winning a one-way lottery ticket to the UK: deserving. Those fleeing desperately over continents and across the Channel: undeserving.
For the first time, a refugee’s method of arrival to the UK will affect whether or not their asylum claim is successful. But this is wrong, and it won’t pan out the way the government intends.
The government’s approach hinges entirely on the concept of an “illegal refugee” – something which is categorically impossible. A refugee cannot enter any country illegally. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention makes that clear. A refugee can enter any country, by any means, to claim asylum.
And still Home Secretary Priti Patel calls those arriving on boats “economic migrants”. These are people who have journeyed on blistered feet from regions suffering conflict or oppressive governments as far from the UK as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, and Libya.
There is also no legal obligation for a refugee to settle in the first safe country which they enter. Patel’s “turn back the boats” narrative is an arrogant and brazen contradiction of international law. Geography is not an excuse to shirk responsibility. We can’t tell the French that we won’t play our part because we’re 20 miles further west than them. Because France will then say the same to Italy; Italy to Greece; and the entire refugee protection system will collapse.
Refugees don’t risk their lives on a rubber boat to cause the UK harm. They don’t come to feed on our welfare system or steal our jobs. They seek protection in the UK because they have family members here, or they speak English, or they served with our military overseas. But, also, because the UK has a strong international reputation for being a welcoming, warm, and prosperous society.
The government knows this, so they’re trying to ruin our international reputation. If it looks like the UK hates refugees, perhaps they won’t want to live here. But the damage this will do is massively counterproductive. Not playing our part, while expecting countries neighbouring warzones and in regions buckling under political pressure to accept millions of refugees, will come back to bite us. Uzbekistan has already shut its borders to Afghan refugees. We can’t set an example which leads Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, or Uganda to do the same.
Our already strained relationships with Europe will become tenser still. The UK ranks only 17th in Europe for asylum applications per capita. The government defends itself by pointing out our leadership in refugee resettlement since 2015. However, this is no longer the case and the truth is that the 1,171 refugees the UK has resettled in 2021 is not an impressive number. They are transformed lives but not nearly enough of them.
The government gives a good talk about this country’s “proud history of offering sanctuary to those in need”. But when it comes to the crunch, and traumatised young strangers arrive on England’s beaches, the government is swift to forget that history.
The government is busy fretting about the consequences of a broken asylum system when they should be knuckling down to fix the system itself. They are right to try and avoid refugees travelling to the UK by rubber boat or refrigerated lorry, but you don’t do that by making it illegal to seek refuge. You do it by providing an accessible alternative.
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If you are a British citizen by birth, or by other reasons out of your control, you have not earned it. You have not earned the right to live in a country where it’s not normal to be shelled by enemy troops, or to dodge landmines on your way to work. The millions of people swept up in a refugee crisis out of their control similarly do not deserve poverty, uncertainty, and humiliation – but that is all the government wants to offer them.
The government is ignoring the messy reality. Refugees – and far, far more of them – need to be approached and helped with processing claims where they are in Europe, especially those in Calais.
My wish this Christmas is that the government comes to understand the impact these reforms would have. I hope that the home secretary will be inspired not to turn desperate people away, but to make Britain as compassionate and welcoming as our reputation still proclaims us to be.
Tim Farron is MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former leader of the Liberal Democrats
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