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Priti Patel’s Borders Bill caters for fantasy refugees, not real ones


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Imagine that you are – for the sake of argument – involved in a democracy movement in a post-Soviet dictatorship.

Recently the police picked you up, beat the hell out of you and assaulted you in ways you’d rather not dwell on. Then they booted you out of the police station and told you to keep quiet if you value your life. Recovering at home, you’re aware of the blokes in parked cars outside the flat. Your neighbour’s friend in the police warns you that you’re on the list of usual suspects to be rounded up the next time the protests kick off.

You climb down a drainpipe in the middle of the night and make it to your aunt’s house. What do you do now?

Asylum after the Borders Bill

What Priti Patel would like you to do – other than ceasing to be her problem, even hypothetically – is sit in a refugee camp and hope some beneficent Western country deems you to be deserving and rescues you. Or so it seems from her incoherent Nationality and Borders Bill, published today.

But where are these camps? There are no safe zones in your country. Even if they existed in a neighbouring one, the land borders are sealed. Nor (if you even think about it) are you confident that, if camps did exist, people like Patel would sincerely be trying to get you out.

What other options do you have? You can’t come legally to the UK, or any other safe country, because they won’t give you a visa and anyway the police have kept your passport. But a friend of a friend knows a people smuggler and if your family cobbles together enough money, they’ll get you out in secret.

Maybe you believe the UK respects human rights – maybe you’ve even heard British ministers boasting about this. Maybe your cousin lives here. Maybe it’s just because the first flight which a corrupt border guard can help you get on is bound for Heathrow. For one reason or another, you end up in the UK.

You’re afraid immigration officers will just send you back if you claim asylum at the airport. You’re exhausted and scared and want to speak to a lawyer, and anyway the smuggler has told you to pretend to be a tourist, so you do. Then you claim asylum a few days later.

You’re likely to find seeking asylum humiliating and stressful, with dismal accommodation and a confusing application process. Perhaps you find it hard to talk about just what happened in that police station. But you fight on, and a couple of years later get asylum.

Under the government’s proposals, you won’t get permanent residence or even something leading to it: just temporary, renewable status. (Clause 10 of today’s Bill explicitly allows this “differential treatment”.) You’re told this is because of your means of travel and the need to deter people smugglers. It would be different if you’d only waited in that imaginary refugee camp.

You hear Patel on the radio saying you elbowed aside women and children patiently waiting in camps (you may even be a woman and/or a child, although there are valid reasons why many asylum seekers are men). You find this mind-achingly disingenuous, but more pressingly you have nightmares of what will happen if you’re sent back at the end of your temporary status. You find it hard to work and settle down, while politicians blame you for not integrating.

When you do re-apply to stay, your application sits in a queue for years because the Home Office doesn’t have the staff to deal with it. (It already can’t cope with the number of initial asylum applications, even though numbers are down since the pandemic, and that was before adding on a renewal process for temporary protection status.) Your nightmares and anxieties increase.

Sometimes you wonder where all the deserving refugees are, who were supposed to be disadvantaged by your secret journey. You begin to suspect that the UK government wasn’t being 100% sincere when it said that it would increase the numbers it accepted from refugee camps or other “safe and legal routes”.

Targeting refugees for political gain

Details obviously vary, but asylum seekers commonly use clandestine means to save their lives urgently. They are further incentivised to do so by restrictive visa policies and carriers’ liability legislation (fining airlines etc who bring people with the wrong documents into the UK).

This Bill is going to cause more pain and misery to people who’ve already suffered too much. There’s no decent, sincere basis for playing off one kind of refugee against another, according to their means of travel, or gender, or anything else.

It’s unclear that Patel’s proposals are in line with the Refugee Convention – which broadly prohibits penalties based on means of entry and requires states to help refugees integrate – or the non-discrimination provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But this is what happens when the humanitarian intentions of refugee law – forged, let’s recall, in the shadow of Nazism and the shameful failure to protect its victims – come into the sights of people whose world view is to punish, control and exclude. And of course this viciousness isn’t only something that comes naturally to some kinds of politicians. It’s also something many of them see as electorally advantageous.

Amazingly, there are still some who think that supposedly progressive people can win that sort of arms race with the right. We can’t. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t only oppose the Borders Bill, but also try to change the whole narrative.

Now read: Are refugees obliged to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach?

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Alasdair Mackenzie

Alasdair is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, where he specialises in immigration and asylum law, particularly involving complex issues such as mental health and exclusion from refugee status. Before coming to the Bar, he was among the founders of the charity Asylum Aid, of which he was Co-ordinator from 1990 to 2002.