By Kieran Lewis, Policy Assistant
On the 27th of March, the Government’s proposed Illegal Migration Bill entered the committee stage in the House of Commons. Having already drawn sharp criticism from the UNHCR, the Bill is being sold as a solution to the dangerous English Channel crossings undertaken by sanctuary seekers in small boats, but what will the Bill mean in practice if it becomes law?
What does the Bill actually say?
The stated aim of the Bill is to ‘prevent and deter unlawful migration’, particularly by ‘unsafe and illegal routes’. It plans to achieve this by threatening to deport those who arrive without official authorisation to their own country or – for those from countries deemed unsafe – to another ‘safe’ country, like Rwanda.
Another way in which the Bill aims to deter people from coming to the UK without prior permission is by barring anyone who enters in this way from ever being granted refugee status, British citizenship, or any other kind of leave to remain, regardless of their situation. Even the children of such people would be prevented from ever being able to settle in the UK.
The Bill would oblige the Home Secretary to deport anyone who entered the UK irregularly or travelled through a ‘safe’ country before arriving here. It would also give them the power to detain both adults and children indefinitely until their removal from the country could be arranged.
During the debate in the House of Commons, MPs rejected amendments that would have allowed victims of human trafficking and other crimes, as well as unaccompanied children, to claim asylum in the UK.
What would this mean in practice?
The Bill seeks to penalise anyone who does not arrive in the UK via ‘safe’, legal routes. The problem is that, for most sanctuary seekers, these routes simply do not exist. People who claim asylum leave their countries of origin because their lives are in danger. These people do not have the time or resources to make prohibitively expensive and time-consuming applications for visas before they flee so that they can arrive ‘lawfully’.
In the rare cases where allegedly ‘safe routes’ do exist, they come in the form of dubious schemes like the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS). Despite being the only available ‘safe’ route for Afghans at risk of human rights abuses, it has so far led to the resettlement of just 22 people. That 8,633 Afghan citizens opted instead to risk their lives crossing the Channel to reach the UK last year is a damning indictment of the accessibility of the ‘safe routes’ so often pointed to by the Government as a solution.
Under the Bill, even those arriving from countries recognised as being unsafe by the Home Office would be denied access to the asylum system if they arrived via irregular means. This would effectively make the asylum system redundant and has led to the UNHCR accusing the Government of ‘extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK’.
The political and logistical challenges of deporting people to third countries would likely trap many sanctuary seekers in an extended state of limbo in the UK. Barred from claiming asylum, they would have no pathway to permanent settlement and no right to work. These people would presumably be left in detention centres run by for-profit companies until their deportation could be arranged.
It is also doubtful that the Home Office and its subcontractors would have the capacity to detain everyone who had arrived in the UK irregularly. It is, therefore, likely that many people would, as immigration barrister Colin Yeo puts it, ‘disappear into the community’. With little incentive to stay in touch with the Home Office, sanctuary seekers would likely end up working informally with no guaranteed rights, no access to publicly funded services and no protection from exploitation.
Why does this matter to NSUN?
In its current form, the Illegal Migration Bill is an assault on the right to seek sanctuary in the UK. It is fundamentally at odds with the spirit of the Refugee Convention, and the Home Secretary herself has admitted that it is ‘more than 50%’ likely to breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The Bill is also disastrous for the mental wellbeing of migrants, who often experience acute mental ill-health, distress or trauma related to the migration process.
Those who are forced to travel to the UK irregularly do so out of necessity, undertaking life-threatening journeys to escape violence and persecution at home. These journeys are often both a response to and a cause of trauma and distress. In many cases, the events that force people to flee to the UK have been set in motion by Britain’s colonial past and military interventions across the world. As such, many who seek sanctuary here are dealing with trauma on multiple fronts, both first-hand and intergenerational.
People who experience what might be described as chronic and severe mental ill-health are very unlikely to have had access to adequate support during their arduous journeys, or before, in many cases. The status quo in the UK places the responsibility for such people’s care into the hands of outsourcing giants like Serco and Capita. These are companies with shocking records of mistreatment, profiting from deportations and consistently failing to accurately assess the eligibility of disability benefit claimants, all with deadly consequences.
The system of detention, surveillance and exclusion that governs the lives of migrants in the UK deprives them of access to healthcare and relies on practices that are inherently traumatic. Whether they are physically held in detention centres, released on bail or unknown to the Home Office entirely, the UK’s hostile environment for migrants weaponises their mental health as a form of immigration control and traps them in precarity. Public services of all kinds have become labyrinths of internal borders and the deliberate rhetorical criminalisation of all migrants has meant that they struggle to access even the limited services to which they are theoretically entitled.
With the help of its for-profit subcontractors, the Home Office has long worked to construct migrants as a visible Other, separated from the rest of society by the constant threat of deportation as a ‘distinct form of state social control’. Regardless of the feasibility of this threat, it creates and sustains a readily exploitable demographic group, ready to be scapegoated by the Government as needed. Should the new Bill pass, it is to be assumed that the same group of nefarious actors would exercise even greater control over a much larger group of migrants, all at the expense of a functional asylum process.
The Bill would leave us with the antithesis of an asylum system – a punitive policy that would be directly responsible for even more deaths at sea, in detention centres and in households deprived of access to basic services. Aside from the literal death toll, the proposed changes would take a huge toll on the health and futures of those who deserve to live full lives in the safety of international protection.
How are people resisting the Illegal Migration Bill?
Unsurprisingly, this proposed legislation has not gone unnoticed or unopposed. Its second reading in the House of Commons was met with protests up and down the country, attracting thousands of attendees. Encouragingly, a number of high-profile public figures have also been willing to use their platforms to denounce the Bill. In Scotland, almost 70 MPs and MSPs have signed an open letter opposing the ‘harmful’ and ‘pernicious’ Bill, while many UK-wide voluntary organisations have come together to highlight its expected impact on homelessness and destitution.
As this ‘Refugee Ban Bill’, as many have christened it, continues to progress through Parliament, groups and individuals across the country will, no doubt, continue to resist. It is vital that, in this resistance, we constantly challenge the false separation between migrant justice and mental health and recognise it for what it is – a harmful practice that upholds the status quo and keeps racialised people with lived experience of the immigration system out of the conversation on these issues. As we imagine alternatives to the current immigration regime that centre protection over punishment – and build power in order to make them a reality – the voices of these people must be leading the conversation.