Picture by Jeff Moore, from Anti Tribalism Movement
Julia Rampen from our funded partner IMIX outlines the problems with the Illegal Migration Bill (also known as the Refugee Ban Bill), and what the sector can do to challenge it.
Imagine two female friends in Afghanistan. When the Coalition forces toppled the Taliban, both take advantage of their new rights and carved out careers in the public eye. Then the Taliban comes back. One of those talented trailblazers happens to have a British friend who gets her on an evacuation list. She arrives in the UK days after Kabul falls, with the right to start work immediately.
The other is currently in the back of a van. She didn’t have the contacts to get into the airport, and there was (and is) no way to apply for the UK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme. In fear of her life, she turns to people smugglers. Her experience of Europe so far consists of flimsy tents in the mud, predatory criminals and vicious border police. She wants nothing more than to reach the UK, where at least she has one friend. But when she arrives, she will be in limbo, threatened with deportation to Rwanda.
This is the reality set out in the Illegal Migration Bill, dubbed the Refugee Ban Bill after the UNHCR warned it “would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how compelling their claim may be”. And although the example laid out above is fictional, every element in it is borrowed from the real story of someone IMIX has worked with.
The Refugee Ban Bill explained
In blocking people who travel irregularly from claiming asylum, the Bill ignores an uncomfortable truth – the majority of those crossing in small boats are considered refugees under international law. They cannot simply be deported to their home countries of Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, or other brutal and wartorn places.
The government’s answer to this is that they will be deported to Rwanda instead. But putting aside the ethics of one of the richest countries in the world outsourcing its humanitarian obligations, Rwanda’s opposition leader has warned that the country does not have the capacity to host refugees in large numbers. The more likely result is the legislation will create in the UK “a large and permanent population of people who will live in limbo at public expense for the rest of their lives, without any hope of securing lawful status” (Liberty briefing on the Bill).
The Bill also unravels a decade of ground-breaking modern slavery legislation by also punishing trafficking victims if they arrived by irregular means. Modern slavery already thrives on psychological manipulation – now gang bosses can accurately tell their victims that they will be deported if they dare to go to police. None other than the former Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May warned that under the Bill, “we are shutting the door to victims who are being trafficked”.
Finally, the Bill is a blueprint to massively expand the UK’s detention estate, with those held in detention unable to challenge the decision for the first 28 days. Detention looks and feels like prison. As one survivor of torture wrote about his time there: “Being detained brought back memories. The sound of the locks, the footsteps, the four walls, the not knowing what was happening – this was all mental torture.” On a purely practical note, it is not clear who benefits from the government spending nearly £10bn on detaining people who are of no danger to the public and indeed often want nothing more than to participate in the community as they start to rebuild their lives.
What the sector can do
Refugee charities campaigned tirelessly against the Nationality and Borders Bill in 2022, which discriminated against people who took irregular journeys, but despite the opposition of all other major political parties, the Conservative majority ensured that it passed. The Refugee Ban Bill seems likely to pass as well.
Nevertheless, charities can and must work to highlight the most concerning aspects of the Bill. The government likes to claim it is speaking on behalf of “the people”, but British Future’s 2022 Immigration Tracker finds around 55% of the public feel at least some sympathy to those crossing in small boats. A majority don’t think the Rwanda scheme will work. Furthermore, the Bill has a knock-on effect on everything from the Good Friday Agreement to the UK’s international reputation – issues that matter to One Nation Tories. With an election on the horizon, there is still a debate that can be won. However, the current government’s tendency to shore up support with hardline headlines means the sector must be aware that refugee rights – a cause that should have cross-party support – is in danger of being absorbed in the culture wars.
Tied into this is the need for the sector to unite behind clear policies. The government is fond of saying that critics of the Bill can offer no alternative. In fact, there are many policy ideas around, including creating safe routes, humanitarian visas and investing in enough staff to clear the asylum backlog, as well as working more closely with France and international partners. There are also successful examples that could be built upon, such as family reunion, the Syrian resettlement scheme, and the Homes for Ukraine Scheme (although there have been hiccups, offering sanctuary to more than 100,000 Ukrainians is better than nothing). However, as a politician working on immigration once put it to me: “How can I advocate for something if only half the sector seems to back it?”
Finally, it is important that people with lived experience are front and centre of this campaign work. IMIX’s Struggle for Safety research found that the arguments most persuasive in changing undecided audiences’ minds are those referring to individual refugees, why they fled and the challenges they overcome. Not everyone is able to share such stories, which is why IMIX has developed a training and safeguarding process designed to identify those who are best placed to take on this role. Similarly, getting people from a refugee background in a room with MPs can be transformative. In 2022, the MP Christian Wakeford apologised for his comments about asylum seekers after hearing the real stories of people in his constituency. The Conservative MP Roger Gale’s visit to Manston was key in highlighting conditions in that overcrowded processing centre.
The next few months are likely to be demoralising ones for those campaigning for the right to seek safety. But news cycles move on, and politics can change in a week. By putting the groundwork in place now, the sector will be ready when the time comes.