While other countries are defending their national pride and image on the Olympic podiums in Tokyo, England is busy defending the same thing with a new Bill that will mean the forced expulsion of asylum seekers who arrive in boats. Recently, headlines in the UK have been a mix of Olympic athletes, packed nightclubs, and crowded vessels crossing the Channel and coming on the shores in England. Reactions from the general public have been a mixed sense of horror; horror at the idea of immigrants flooding into Kent and horror at the government’s response. One woman interviewed by the Independent said in response to the UK Government’s new bill: “It’s a hideous representation of what this country has become in my opinion” (R, 2021).
Behind this bill is Priti Patel. Boris Johnson appointed Patel into the position of Home Secretary in 2019 (P W., 2020). Since her appointment, Patel has taken harsh lines of defense on immigration, borders, and refugees. In a 2019 speech at a Conservative conference, Patel “vowed to invoke Margaret Thatcher” (Swinford, 2019). The latter was endearingly nicknamed ‘The Iron Lady’ following her uncompromising leadership as Prime Minister. The conservative and rigid characteristics that defined and polarised Britain under Thatcher’s leadership have been brought back to life under Patel.
The Nationality and Borders Bill have been Priti Patel’s most recent proposal for dealing with the UK’s refugee crisis. This bill has been decried by opposition members, not-for-profits, and migration agencies alike (M E., 2021). It ultimately proposes to crush people smugglers through the criminalisation of arriving by boat. The similarity to the unrelenting policies of Australia is purposeful; post-Brexit, Britain has reportedly been looking at the condemned Australian policies with admiration (A D., 2020).
The parallels between Priti Patel’s stance on immigration, and the Operation Sovereign Borders plan that has defined Australian refugee policies, rest in language. In a statement to the Daily Mail, Priti Patel states: “If you illegally enter the UK via a safe country in which you could have claimed asylum, you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril – as is the intended purpose of the system” (P P., 2021).
These words closely echo Tony Abbott’s speech in 2015 regarding his Operation Sovereign Borders Act, that “illegal arrivals” in Australia can no longer be considered as “fleeing in fear” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2015). Instead, because of the number of borders crossed to reach their destination, they can be considered “almost by definition…economic migrants because they had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2015). This depiction of borders, safe countries, and illegal arrivals, or “queue jumpers”, allows politicians to illustrate the experience of displacement as one that is full of checkpoints, rather than an ongoing experience of deprivation and danger that can last decades.
What the Nationality and Borders Bill contains:
This Nationality and Borders Bill will penalise someone for how they seek asylum. The UNHCR claims there is no illegal way to seek asylum; however, this bill determines that any asylum seeker arriving by boat will be deemed an illegal arrival. If there is any doubt when processing their application for asylum, they face four-year imprisonment sentences (M E., 2021). If they are found to be a genuine refugee, they will not receive permanent protection. Instead, they will receive a “temporary protection status”, which lasts up to 30 months (M E., 2021). Within this time, authorities will periodically assess their claim, and at any time, the Government will be able to deport these people. This bill also denies families from reuniting within the UK and restricts access to social welfare for their entire residency period (unless in a crisis) (M E., 2021). Additionally, people accused of people smuggling will face life sentences ( M E., 2021).
The claims made by this Bill:
When writing this proposal, the UK government used the same language that Australia has been employing to criminalise asylum seekers for the last two decades. In the opening speech of the bill, Priti Patel reiterated the same harmful rhetoric. She states that refugees who seek asylum are illegal economic migrants and paints them as rapists, and murderers. She claims that many pose as children to enjoy the safety and economic benefits of the UK (P P., 2021).
To support this rationale, the government is imposing criminal punishments on anyone who has come by boat. Yet, despite depictions in the media, only 353 people were resettled in the UK in 2020-21 (out of 36, 041 applications) (Norris S, 2021). Across the country, the government offered refugee protection status to 9000 people (Norris S, 2021). It is these 9000 who could be the first harmed through these new measures. Patel also claims that these measures will protect spaces for women and children to be resettled through more legal routes. However, the UK government only resettled 12 children in 2020 (Norris S, 2021). Beyond these paltry numbers, the government’s New Plan for Immigration would turn away 60% of women and children who seek asylum (Norris S, 2021). These protected spaces for women and children are the sizing equivalent of a shoebox.
A common polarising question is: why should governments settle people who came illegally when they could reward other refugees who followed the “proper channels”? The overlying assumption in this question is that the ‘legal’ route is fair and efficient. However, statistics provided by Byline Times show that in the UK, only 22% of asylum claims receive a decision within six months. By 31 December 2020, 64,895 people were waiting to hear whether their asylum claim had been approved (Norris S, 2021). For people in a crisis, six months can be too long.
Another argument used by the UK government is that these refugees should honour the safe country system of Europe: otherwise known as the Dublin Regulation. To re-use a quote from Patel: “If you illegally enter the UK via a safe country in which you could have claimed asylum, you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril – as is the intended purpose of the system – but are choosing the UK as a preferred destination over others” (P P., 2021). This statement refers to the Dublin Regulation, which in prior years applied to the UK. The Dublin Regulation was first created in 1990 and last revised in 2012 (Dublin III) (M S., 2019). Its intended purpose was to strengthen the Common European Asylum System and assure a country takes responsibility for the asylum seekers they receive (M S., 2019). Under it, authorities can transfer asylum seekers to other member states. The Dublin Regulation mandates that the country that takes responsibility will be the first country of arrival for the asylum seekers (M S., 2019). Many member states of the European Union have since recognised the Dublin Regulation as a flawed system, which mainly impacts the border states of Europe (M S., 2019). These border states receive some of the highest numbers of asylum seekers.
One of these border states is Greece. Infamously, Greece suffered a deep recession and economic crisis in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. The country was only beginning to recover in 2016 (A O., 2021). In 2020, Greece still had an unemployment rate of 16.85% (the highest of all the European countries) (A O., 2021). Overpopulated camps, covid restrictions, and pre-existing economic sinkholes mean that Greece is utterly ill-equipped for hosting and sheltering asylum seekers. There have been multiple reports of Greek coastguards ignoring ships in distress or towing them back into the open water. This issue is not isolated to Greece. Multiple border countries in Europe receive high numbers of asylum seekers, despite struggling with their social and economic systems (M S., 2019).
So, Patel asserts a false assumption that there are safer countries to return to; Europe has been removing the autonomy of asylum seekers and sending them into countries whose burdened systems cannot create room or space. Many of these ‘safe’ countries are simply not safe at all. Human rights groups are urging that the government focuses its efforts on providing faster, more efficient, and safer routes to seeking asylum (A D., 2020). Unfortunately, their energy has instead been wasted on criminalising it.