People at the March Against Racism last month, where activists protested against the Illegal Migration Bill. Image: Alisdare Hickson/ Flickr
Refugees and asylum seekers often arrive in the UK deeply traumatised by horrifying violence and persecution. The Illegal Migration Bill will only harm their mental health further, charities and campaigners warn.
The controversial bill seeks to “prevent and deter unlawful migration” such as small-boat crossings across the English Channel. If the bill is passed, people who arrive in the UK illegally will not be granted asylum and the government will have new powers to detain and deport migrants to third countries including Rwanda.
Josie Naughton, the chief executive of Choose Love, says: “Displaced people who have fled unimaginable situations increasingly face hostility, demonisation and isolation. This makes people feel that there’s nowhere to turn, despite many communities wanting to support them.”
Around 65,000 people are expected to make the dangerous journey across the channel in small boats this year. Four migrants died in December when their boat sank in freezing conditions.
“Stopping the boats is one of the Prime Minister’s five priorities,”a Home Office spokesperson claims. “We are delivering for the British people by bringing forward the Illegal Migration Bill, taking forward our world-leading Migration and Economic Partnership with Rwanda and working to fix our broken asylum system.”
Even the government admits the asylum system is broken. It is notoriously difficult to navigate. Zain Hafeez, who came to the UK as an asylum seeker from Pakistan when he was a child, faced harrowing struggles with his mental health as a result of the rhetoric around migration in politics and the media.
“You don’t have much value as an asylum seeker,” he says. “It is a very isolating and lonely journey. I wasn’t even able to share my experiences, not even with my friends, because I was insecure about being judged because of all the myths and stereotypes that are amplified in the news and media.”
The Illegal Migration Bill went to report stage on April 26, giving MPs an opportunity to suggest amendments before the third and final reading.
Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said: “We want to stop the boats and secure our borders, and this bill is dedicated to that goal. It will send a clear message that if you enter the UK illegally, you will not be able to build a life here.
“Instead you’re liable to be detained and you will be removed either back to your home country if it’s safe to do so or a safe third country such as Rwanda.”
If the bill is passed, asylum seekers are set to be detained or deported when they arrive in the UK illegally. Even children will be effectively criminalised and could be detained with their families. Those who arrive unaccompanied will be placed in accommodation owned by the Home Office.
Jenrick said: “The vast majority of those individuals coming on small boats are coming from an obvious place of safety in France with a fully functioning asylum system, so they’re choosing to make that additional crossing.
“They are essentially asylum shoppers, even if they ultimately came from a place of danger and they’re doing that because they believe the UK is a better place for them to make their claim and to build a future.”
Nearly 200,000 people – most of them refugees fleeing from some of the world’s most dangerous and repressive countries – could be locked up or forced into destitution in the bill’s first three years. In total, between £8.7 billion and £9.6bn will have been spent on detaining and accommodating people impacted by the bill, according to the Refugee Council.
“The bill will tear families apart and punish people fleeing persecution or conflict. Sustained detention will be the only thing waiting for many who arrive in the UK,” Noughton says. “Being detained for prolonged periods is known to re-traumatise and inflict severe mental health outcomes.”
“Rather than hostility and criminalisation of people seeking safety, we should be welcoming them. Psychosocial support is critical so we give vulnerable people the tools they need to rebuild their lives.”
The Home Office claims asylum seekers have access to health and social care services from point of arrival in the UK and it works closely with the NHS, local authorities and contractors to “ensure that asylum seekers can access the support they need”. A spokesperson says the government also works with local and national organisations to facilitate the donation of digital devices.
But Hafeez found that mental health support was limited. “There’s a massive queue, and there isn’t enough sensitivity to understanding the struggles of asylum seekers or someone who is going through the migration process,” he remarks. “It was a very isolating and lonely time. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
Hafeez fears that the bill will fuel more negativity. “What really fuels it is our politicians talking about it and that normalises it, and makes it seem OK to demonise these people and use them as a scapegoat.”
Noughton believes “government rhetoric is provoking fear and distress”. Braverman came under fire when she said she would love to see the front page of The Telegraph with a plane of migrants taking off to Rwanda. “That’s my dream,” she said in a Conservative Party Speech. “It’s my obsession.”
Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, says: “The government’s hateful language and anti-refugee laws simply make the suffering of people worse, most of whom go on to be granted refugee status and become our neighbours, friends and colleagues.
“The hostile environment, which the anti-refugee laws are part of, is cruel and racist. It must be ditched and replaced with a system built on dignity and compassion so people feel supported to live healthy and productive lives in peace.”
A spokesperson for the Refugee Council adds: “Being subjected to a hostile narrative and treated with suspicion understandably takes its toll on vulnerable people who are hoping to build new lives for themselves. We should be treating refugees with dignity and respect and providing support for their complex needs, instead of causing them further distress and trauma.”
Hafeez believes the Illegal Migration Bill is “attempting to make us go on a different tangent, instead of focusing on really important issues like how we’re going through a cost of living crisis”. He says there are many asylum seekers and refugees struggling with depression and stuck in unimaginable situations.
One woman he has worked with through his campaigning was subjected to domestic violence, but she cannot access the services she needs. Her husband would say that if she went to the police they would both end up being deported.
“There are very important issues, but I feel like our government is regressing and making us focus on new issues with the creation of the bill,” Hafeez says. “With no recourse to public funds, asylum seekers and refugees are not able to access the benefits they need.
“Some of them might have mental health issues or disabilities, but because they’re not eligible for benefits to help them feed their kids and provide for their everyday needs, they’re becoming destitute and homeless. Their kids are being born and they’re stuck in that vicious cycle.”
Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, says: “We should never ignore the impact of separation from families, xenophobia, exclusion from work and other social activity, perilous journeys and experience of conflict, persecution and exploitation. Everyone should have access to appropriate care and support – not hostile rhetoric, alienating policies and even denying their right to seek asylum.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said the government’s Illegal Migration Bill also risked exposing people to serious harm. It says it is particularly worried about the possibility of children and pregnant women being detained.
Braverman has insisted her migration plan is compassionate, even after the watchdog said it puts people at risk of serious harm.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, the Home Secretary said: “I refute the suggestion our measures are unlawful, or indeed cruel or inhumane. Our measures in the bill are both robust and humanitarian and compassionate. We need to inject an element of deterrence, so that people don’t make the treacherous journey on a flimsy dinghy in the middle of the night in the first place.”
But campaigners believe the government is fuelling negative, and even violent, attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Ravishaan Rahel Muthiah, director of communications at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), adds: “Whether it’s branding those who have no other means to come to this country as ‘illegal’, threatening to deport people to Rwanda or vilifying ethnic minorities, the government’s actions are emboldening the far-right.”
Hard-right protesters visited hotels housing asylum seekers 253 times last year amid a surge in anti-migrant activity across the UK, according to research from Hope Not Hate. These are also known as ‘migrant hunts’.
“As it stands, the system is one of hostility and disbelief towards those seeking refuge,” Muthiah adds. “This, combined with the interminable limbo which many are left in, is already a perfect recipe for mental health issues. Adding the government’s recent rhetoric around this bill on top can only create further fear for those who came here seeking refuge. It is utterly shameful.”
Hafeez doesn’t believe the bill will have the desired effect of deterring migrants. “It won’t deter people from coming to the UK because the people who are coming are just getting on a boat and they don’t even know where the boat is going to land. It’s not like they properly research the laws of coming to the UK before coming. How is it going to act as a deterrent?”
He believes, instead of this bill, the government should include people with lived experience in decision making, lift the ban on asylum seekers working and evaluate the no recourse to public fund policy and how it is having a detrimental impact on marginalised people.
“The government should be focused on fairly and efficiently deciding people’s asylum claims, securing safe and suitable accommodation, and where possible providing safe routes for people to seek asylum,” Valdez-Symonds adds. “While ministers continue on their path of destruction of the UK’s asylum system, the human cost – including to mental health – can be expected to get ever worse.”
The bill is now through to its final stages in parliament. But even with the government concessions the bill is expected to face significant opposition when it proceeds to the House of Lords in the coming months.
There is little hope for the future without substantial change, the charities warn. “By 2050 the amount of displaced people in the world is expected to be ten times higher than it is today,” Houghton says. “Cruel and unworkable gimmicks, like this bill, belong to a different age. We need a fundamental change to our asylum system.”
The Refugee Council agrees, with a spokesperson adding: “Nearly 200,000 people could be locked up or forced into destitution in the first three years of the bill coming into force, at untold financial and human cost. Most people in Britain open their hearts to those in need and in search of sanctuary. This bill attacks the best of British values and does not reflect the country we are in 2023.”
Read more of the Big Issue’s coverage of the Illegal Migration Bill