I have tabled an amendment to the Illegal Migration Bill – and it could change everything

We can do as this bill offers in its current form and choose to raise our guard as we make a fortress of our home – or we can choose something different

Olivia Blake
Sunday 26 March 2023 12:07 BST
Dozens of migrants rescued from dinghy in Mediterranean sea

In September 2015, when pictures of two-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body lying on a Turkish beach covered every newspaper and TV screen in Europe, the UK government rightly said, “never again”.

For a moment, our country went into a period of genuine reflection – how did we get to this point? More importantly, what can we do to ensure tragedies like this are not repeated? And yet, six years later, in November 2021, 27 people (likely more) drowned trying to reach the UK in one of the deadliest days of the Channel crossing crisis.

These tragedies, and the countless others, should have been a catalyst for change – a moment to break with the hostile policies which are failing to protect people at the border. Instead, the government is doubling down on this failed approach.

On Monday, Suella Braverman’s anti-refugee bill will return to Parliament. The legislation will effectively ban asylum claims from anyone who hasn’t arrived here through one of the few bespoke schemes, such as Homes for Ukraine or the Afghanistan Resettlement scheme. It will also grant the home secretary extensive new powers to detain and deport asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children.

The bill’s official title is the Illegal Migration Bill, which in a certain unintended sense is apt – under international law, the measures it contains are illegal. Experts from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have warned that the bill would break the UK’s obligations under the Refugee Convention, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, the 1961 Convention for the Reduction of Statelessness, and international human rights law.

Despite these warnings, the government is ploughing ahead, claiming that the bill is the “fair” thing to do and that it is the only way to save lives and stop people smugglers.

But this framework of deterrence and securitisation is failing to stop the dangerous crossings. Since 2018, 56 people have tragically drowned in the Channel – yet the number of small boat arrivals has risen.

Attempts to intensify the deterrent, such as the Nationality and Borders Act and the government’s Rwanda policy, have not stopped people from making the crossing. In fact, the people travelling here on small boats has increased.

We owe it to every person who has died in the Channel trying to reach safety in the UK to have an honest conversation about what we can do to end these tragedies. If we want to save lives, ministers need to change their approach, drop the cruel and inhumane deterrence policies, and look at real solutions.

That’s why I have tabled an amendment to the bill – supported by PCS Union and Care for Calais, two organisations working on the front line of the crisis – which offers a practical and humane solution. The amendment would create a “safe passage” visa which gives entry clearance to those already in Europe wishing to come to the UK to make an asylum claim.

While not the same as the Ukrainian resettlement schemes, it draws inspiration from them. The schemes have not been perfect, but no Ukrainian refugee has made a dangerous crossing to get here. It wasn’t necessary because an application for safe passage could be made online. Like the Ukrainian schemes, application for a safe passage visa would be made online, with documents and any necessary biometric information uploaded to an online portal. If successful, the applicant would be sent an electronic letter that they could use to enter the UK.

The proposal is tightly focused on addressing the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Channel, Calais, and elsewhere in Europe. For that reason, it differs from humanitarian visa proposals in which screening and processing take place before travel to the UK.

Instead, the safe passage visa would grant access to the UK to someone in Europe based on whether an applicant would have a valid asylum claim – as set out in the current immigration rules – when they arrive. Most of the screening and processing associated the claim itself would therefore happen as normal in the UK.

The vast majority of people who come her irregularly, on a small boat, make an asylum claim; and overwhelmingly those applications are accepted. They make the dangerous crossing not because they are less likely to be granted refuge, but because there is no other way for them to enter the UK. In providing them an alternative, we remove the need to risk life and limb – thereby saving lives.

This is a watershed moment for our country. We can do as this bill offers in its current form and choose to raise our guard as we make a fortress of our home, whatever the human consequences; or we can choose something different. An actual alternative to dangerous Channel crossings, safe routes for those who come here seeking refuge, respect for international human rights law, and an asylum system that treats all with dignity and respect.

That is the test for all those parliamentarians who said “never again”. I hope they will join me in supporting the proposal.

Olivia Blake is the Labour MP for Sheffield, Hallam

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