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Humanitarian organisations and parliamentarians have warned that refugees from Afghanistan who arrive to the UK via irregular routes will be unfairly criminalised under the government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill.
What is the difference in need between an Afghan asylum seeker who has entered the UK through the government’s new resettlement scheme and one who has entered the UK after crossing the English Channel from France in a dinghy? MPs will need to ponder this question when they return from recess to consider whether the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill makes the UK’s asylum system fairer.
Just as with previous international crisis, from Syria’s civil war stretching back to World War II, the expectation that many Afghans will flee the war-torn country after the Taliban’s victory has forced the UK (and other western countries) to consider how to manage an influx of refugees.
Under intense pressure to face the challenge, the government announced on 18 August that it would open a new scheme to resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees, with a plan to take in up to 5,000 in its first 12 months of operation.
Although humanitarian organisations and parliamentarians welcomed the move, they have warned that refugees from Afghanistan who arrive to the UK via irregular routes will be unfairly criminalised under the government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill.
The crisis situations which drive people to seek asylum means many refugees are unable to apply for asylum in the UK via a legal route
The Nationality and Borders Bill, which had its Second Reading in Parliament on the 19 and 20 July, aims to make the asylum system fairer and more effective, deter illegal entry to the UK, and remove people with no right to be in the country. But its plans to introduce tougher criminal penalties for illegal entry have proved controversial from the outset.
Opposition parties have rallied against the bill, with Labour arguing it breaches international refugee law and fails to address the Home Office’s backlog of asylum cases. The Liberal Democrats have even gone so far as to call it “morally repugnant and wicked”.
One of the key bones of contention is the Bill’s plan to split refugees into two groups with different rights and protections. To be recognised as a Group 1 refugee, a person would have to travel to the UK directly from their home country via an official route and present themselves to authorities without delay so their asylum bid can be assessed.
If a person entered the UK via an irregular route, such as a dinghy across the English Channel, they could have their claim deemed inadmissible and face a criminal sentence. And if the person’s asylum bid was eventually recognised and they were granted official refugee status, this person would only then be deemed a Group 2 refugee. As a Group 2 refugee, the person could be granted less time in the UK, be subject to no recourse to public funds, and their family members could be barred from joining them via the Family Resettlement Scheme.
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, has said the Nationality and Borders Bill would create a “discriminatory two-tier asylum system violating the 1951 Refugee Convention” which UK has signed, and argued that right to seek asylum is universal and does not depend on the mode of arrival.
Humanitarian groups and MPs have said that the crisis situations which drive people to seek asylum means many refugees are unable to apply for asylum in the UK via a legal route.
“The effects of the bill in its current form will be to punish refugees who have been recognised as such under international law, and actually reduce safe and regular routes to the UK as refugee family reunion rights become more limited,” Andrew Hewitt, Head of Advocacy at the Refugee Council, told Dods UK Monitoring.
The government has argued that Article 31 provides a legal basis for the creation of two groups of refugees because, as an island nation, refugees must travel through other countries to reach the UK so are not coming directly from a place of danger.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has been vocal about the need to clamp down on the flow of migrants coming to the UK on boats across English Channel, has said there will be no exception for Afghan refugees arriving to the UK via irregular routes. And with the backlog of asylum cases in the UK having reached a record high at the end of June 2021, it is likely the government will press on with legislation in a bid to address headline numbers.
The Nationality and Borders Bill may have passed its second reading by 366 in favour to 265 against, but the government can expect the Afghan crisis to add a new level of urgency to the debate when parliamentarians next consider the proposed legislation.
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