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The Nationality and Borders Bill and the Future of the Right to Seek Asylum in the UK

The Nationality and Borders Bill put forward by the United Kingdom’s Home Secretary Priti Patel is moving through the early stages of Parliamentary Review. It is now waiting for a date to enter the Committee Stage (in which the proposed legislation will be examined line by line). In the process, it has sparked concerns about the potential damage it would do to refugees living in the UK and across Europe. Patel has stated that the Borders bill’s objective is to “fix a broken asylum system” through several measures, each purporting to serve three main objectives:

  1. increase fairness of the asylum system

  2. deter illegal entry into the UK

  3. remove people who are in the UK illegally

Much of the controversy in this bill rests in the potential negative impact it will have on refugees as well as its compliance with international law.

International Law and Cooperation

The Labour Party’s most vehement point of contention to this bill is that it does not abide by the 1951 Refugee Convention and violates the right to seek asylum which had been recognised by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Refugee Convention is the backbone of international asylum law and whether the Conservative Party's interpretation of the Convention is deemed sufficient will likely determine the success of this bill.

The Conservative interpretation of the Refugee Convention clarifies the definition of persecution. This clause in the bill takes advantage of a loophole in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that the rights declared in the document do not apply to those who are not considered refugees. By changing the qualifications for persecution, thus limiting the number of asylum seekers who are considered refugees, the Home Office was able to abandon struggling asylum seekers and declare the proposed legislation compliant with human rights laws.

Additionally, the attempts made in this bill to pressure asylum seekers into staying in the first safe country they arrive in violates the component Refugee Convention outlawing the criminalisation of refugees based on their mode of travel. This effort is a part of the Home Office’s attempts to curb the number of people crossing the English Channel.

Furthermore, much of this bill requires international cooperation to be successful. The measures allowing asylum claims to be processed outside of the UK involves the use of offshore centres. However, this would have to be negotiated with third-party countries before being implemented.

Tackling Modern Slavery

The issue of modern slavery in British politics has become closely intertwined with the “hostile environment” policies of the Twenty-First Century, designed to make living in the UK difficult for undocumented migrants. These policies have pushed them towards exploitation, most notably, modern slavery: the harbouring of individuals for the purpose of exploitation. Extended maximum sentences against convicted people smugglers reflects the public’s agitation with the pressing issue of modern slavery.

However, punishing people smugglers for conforming to a system that has been made possible via rounds of “hostile environment” legislation since the millennium is an inadequate alternative to tackling the issue. This proposal only impacts the convicted people smugglers while offering no support to victims of modern slavery. It also fails to curve the demand for human trafficking by creating safe and legal pathways to asylum. Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds goes so far as to claim this component of the bill will actively reduce support for victims of human trafficking and will make asylum seeking increasingly more difficult.

Risks to Refugees Legally Living in the UK

Although the Home Office claims this bill will better integrate refugees who are resettled, the rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers that is disseminated to the British public will amplify the damage to public narrative and further isolate refugees legally living in the UK. Much of the rhetoric is defined by the categorisation of refugees into worthy and unworthy. The idea that many refugees are unworthy is likely to overpower the idea that some are worthy and the lack of distinction between the two dehumanises asylum seekers and makes them vulnerable to isolation.

In the Home Secretary’s introductory speech at the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons, she created a narrative around those attempting to seek asylum by defining them as “foreign criminals - including murderers and rapists”. This demonisation of the refugee is facilitated by Patel’s emphasis on the cost of protecting refugees for the taxpayer, positioning them as burdens on the British people. This manipulation of public opinion increases the stigma against refugees, regardless of whether or not they have taken one of the “safe and legal routes” that Patel publicly supports into the UK. It crucially further ostracises them, hindering their ability to better integrate.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will continue to be a source of concern for refugees and their advocates as it abdicates the UK’s responsibilities to asylum-seekers; provides insufficient protection for victims of human trafficking and neglects the well-being of refugees already in the UK. Regardless of the bill’s success in Parliament, it reflects a worrying trend of apathy and even hostility to those seeking refuge in the United Kingdom. Acting as a temporary solution to a problem which requires planning that prioritises humanity, the Borders bill is an insufficient response to long-standing issues and will ultimately be extremely harmful to refugees.


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