There’s a nasty spectre looming over Refugee Week this year. As we celebrate the incredible contributions refugees make to our country, and as we recognise that far more must be done to protect the 30 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world, we are also bracing ourselves for the arrival of Priti Patel’s new “Borders Bill”.
This is the legislation that will enact the Conservatives’ plans to make it harder for people to claim asylum in the UK. No matter how desperate your situation, no matter what forced you to flee your home, no matter if there’s nowhere else for you to go, this government seemingly wants to punish you if you come to the UK having travelled through another “safe” country.
What form could that punishment take? In theory, the government may try to “remove” you to another “safe” country. In practice, you may be trapped in limbo for months before the Home Office even starts processing your asylum claim, after which you move into purgatory for several more months while officials decide your fate.
If you are deemed a genuine refugee – as around 70 per cent of asylum seekers in the UK are – you will be given only a new “temporary protection status”. The government will reassess you every couple of years to see if it can “remove” you from the country. Your rights to sponsor close family members to join you will be restricted, and your children won’t be eligible for child benefit or free school meals.
So how does Priti Patel justify this extraordinary cruelty to some of the world’s most vulnerable people? She says it’s to stop them from crossing the Channel in small boats, and tackle the people smugglers and human traffickers who often orchestrate those crossings — and that’s a goal we all share.
The problem is, nothing in the home secretary’s Borders Bill will actually help achieve that goal. There is absolutely no evidence that treating asylum seekers more harshly when they get here will stop them from trying to come.
After all, the Home Office has been treating asylum seekers abysmally for years: keeping them in unsafe and unsuitable accommodation, forcing them to wait months for a decision on their claim, banning them from working or renting a home, forcing them to live on just £5.66 a day. If cruelty and bureaucracy were the answer, the Home Office would have solved this problem long ago.
The real solution is the one thing Priti Patel is so far refusing to do: provide safe and legal routes for refugees to come to the UK. Only by doing that will we stop people being desperate enough to put their lives in the hands of smugglers, cram themselves into small boats and attempt these perilous crossings, or fall victim to the criminal gangs who traffic human beings as slaves.
The UK has a proud history of providing sanctuary to people in need: from the 10,000 Jewish children we rescued from the Nazis to the 20,000 Syrian refugees we’ve resettled since 2014, with many others in between.
But now, the Conservative government is turning its back on refugees and failing to live up to our obligations to them. They have closed the UK’s three main resettlement schemes and replaced them with a single new one.
Priti Patel says the new UK Resettlement Scheme will “continue our proud record of resettling refugees who need our help from around the world”. But in its first month — at a time when the need for resettlement is higher than ever — that new scheme resettled just 25 people, compared to more than 470 a month under the old ones.
The government must start matching its rhetoric on safe and legal routes with action. The Liberal Democrats are calling for an ambitious new long-term commitment to resettle 10,000 vulnerable refugees each year, as well as a further 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children from elsewhere in Europe over the next decade.
That is the sort of response that would demonstrate the best of the United Kingdom. That is the sort of action that will actually work to stop dangerous Channel crossings. And that is the humane thing to do when millions of people are fleeing war and persecution, and desperately need a place of safety.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland
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