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Opinion

The problems with the Nationality and Borders Bill 

As a proposed new law makes its way through Parliament, William Gomes explains what its dense jargon and complicated language will mean for real people.

For various reasons, marginalised people like myself and vulnerable asylum seekers arriving by boat to UK shores are rarely heard from. Nevertheless, we have a lot to say to you. The UK government’s proposed Nationality and Borders Bill is politically expedient, not principled.

I attempt to put myself in the shoes of those desperate asylum seekers who put their life on the line knowing they may not make it to their destination. Unfortunately, while you as a reader, and I as a writer, and those policymakers in parliament all have our safe places and the option to choose sides, the sea does not. The sea does not care where you come from or who you are; the sea does not discriminate; and the sea can kill, particularly those in those fragile boats.

These asylum seekers are heroes fleeing persecution, oppressive governments, and, in many cases, wars in search of protection, security, and a better life. But if the current bill is passed, they will become criminals the moment they arrive in the UK.

Arriving in the United Kingdom by sea is not already a crime, but it will be if the law is passed. It is important to remember that the right to seek asylum is not contingent on the means of arrival. The bill is predicated on a two-tiered discriminatory approach to asylum, distinguishing between those who arrive legally, such as through resettlement and family reunion visas, and those who arrive irregularly. Access to asylum and protection in the UK would undoubtedly become significantly more difficult for those individuals.

The Nationality and Borders Bill proposes creating a substandard ‘temporary protection status’ based on an individual’s circumstances of entry into the UK. It creates a category of refugees who are denied the full range of rights provided by the 1951 Convention, including the right to family life and prospects for integration.

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The proposed ‘temporary protection status’ would be an unfair penalty for asylum seekers who have already been treated unfairly by the country they are fleeing from. It would also create a group of people who would be reliant on the state for a long period of time, unable to contribute fully to society because the system has discriminated against them.

I am concerned that if the bill becomes law, asylum seekers would be denied refuge based on the premise that persons should seek asylum in the first secure country they reach. It is frequently said that asylum seekers are arriving from France – a safe country – and that they should have sought asylum in their first country of arrival. But we must remember that the law does not require them to do this. Asylum seekers have the right to seek asylum anywhere they feel safe and appropriate. Many asylum seekers come to the UK for a variety of reasons, including having family or other relevant connections.

There are also alarming proposals in the bill for legal changes that would allow the UK government, in the future, to continue to develop offshore asylum processing capacity while still complying with international responsibilities. Evidence suggests that offshoring asylum procedures frequently results in coercive transfers of refugees to nations with inadequate asylum processes, treatment standards, and resources. Asylum seekers may be kept indefinitely in remote areas, placing their lives in considerable danger.

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The United Kingdom was among the core group of countries that drafted the 1951 Convention and was among the first to sign and ratify it, taking the lead in putting refugee protection into action. Now the question remains as to what example we will project on the world stage if this bill becomes law.

The tragic irony is that one of the several reasons forced migrants wind up in the UK is because of the links created throughout colonialism and the British Empire. The majority of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom indeed come from former colonies.

A more inclusive and cost-effective strategy would begin with solidarity, refusing categorisation of immigrants based on their mode of entry into the UK, and recognising the humanity of all migrants as individuals with their own histories, skills, experiences and dreams.

Providing asylum seekers with the opportunity to integrate and contribute to society, for example through work and education, would benefit everyone.

William Gomes is a Bangladeshi journalist and ambassador for the charity City of Sanctuary @Wnicholasgomes

This article is taken from the Refugee Special edition of The Big Issue Magazine, out on August 23. Get a subscription linked to your local Big Issue vendor to make sure you don’t miss it.

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