Expert’s view

Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill: a ‘punitive’ or ‘courageous’ asylum plan?

Ministers claim they’ve been driven to action by ‘an upsurge’ of asylum seekers. In fact, current UK numbers are relatively low

In 2012, Gulwali Passarlay, a teenage Afghan refugee, proudly carried the Olympic torch on its way to the London Games, said Kenan Malik in The Observer. Only six years earlier, he was a desperate 12-year-old caught in the crossfire between Taliban and US forces in Afghanistan. His mother paid a smuggler to take him on a “gruelling 12,000-mile trek” which ended up with him entering Britain in a refrigerated lorry. Yet had Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new Nationality and Borders Bill been law in 2006, Passarlay would have committed a criminal offence just by coming here.

This cruel bill proposes a two-tier system for refugees: those with “papers or permission to enter” will be allowed to claim asylum; those arriving as Passarlay did could be jailed and then deported. But repressive regimes don’t tend to offer their people well-managed paths out of the country, and Britain has closed down almost all “safe and legal routes” to enter the UK.

Ministers claim they are driven to action by “an upsurge” of asylum seekers. In fact, current UK numbers are relatively low: in 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic–they stood at 36,000, less than half those of 20 years ago.

I think Patel should be applauded for her “courage”, said Alp Mehmet of Migration Watch UK in the Daily Mail. The bill’s prime targets are not the people desperately trying to escape from oppression, they are the “asylum shoppers” – migrants who arrive in Britain illegally “via a safe country” – and the people smugglers who exploit them.

Make no mistake, though: every attempt will be made to “neutralise” Patel’s efforts. The Government has promised repeatedly that anyone entering the UK illegally would be “sent back”. Yet out of 6,600 people who did that by crossing the Channel on small boats so far this year, not one has been deported. All of Patel’s plans, such as “off-shore processing centres” for asylum seekers, will get bogged down in legal and political challenges.

They deserve to, said Anoosh Chakelian in the New Statesman. The new bill criminalises anyone who “knowingly facilitates” the arrival of an asylum seeker in the UK. That could include rescue services helping migrants in distress, even though it’s what international maritime law obliges them to do.

This punitive bill “breaches the letter and spirit” of refugee agreements which the UK signed up to, said David Aaronovitch in The Times. Perhaps more importantly, its aims are “clearly unachievable”. Much as Patel may want to send asylum seekers back to France, she can’t, because France won’t have them.

“People smuggling is horribly like the drugs trade.” It will always go on as long as people wish to escape misery and there is no legal alternative. We would be best off increasing the size of our legal resettlement programme to undercut the criminal networks. But that won’t happen, and the “war on people smugglers” will go on endlessly – just like “the war on drugs”.

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