On Tuesday 22nd March, the Nationality and Borders Bill returned to the House of Commons. MPs were given the chance to vote on the amendments made to the bill in the House of Lords, where it was met with strong resistance.
Unfortunately, despite rumours of rebellions on the Conservative benches, the favour was on the government’s side when it came down to a vote. MPs overturned amendments tabled seeking to oblige compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the right for asylum seekers to work and access to offshoring asylum accommodation and processing of applications.
The past few weeks have highlighted the contradiction in the government’s approach to offering sanctuary. The Homes for Ukraine scheme has had thousands of applications since its launch, and the government have turned around quickly to provide the financial and practical resources to make it happen. Whilst it isn’t without flaws, it does demonstrate that when the willingness is there, resource can be found from the very top of government to make urgent and necessary changes to legislation.
And yet, as pointed out by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, MPs voted on Tuesday to criminalise Ukrainian asylum seekers who arrive in the UK without the correct paperwork. Under the Bill, this approach would apply to any refugee who arrived in the UK via a government declared ‘irregular route’, whose claim would then become automatically unfounded. In a week where small boat channel crossings have again been rising, it’s understandable that this dangerous route should be addressed. However, as pointed out by Conservative MP Damian Green, over 87% of passengers on small boats come from four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Currently, people from these countries do not have access to any safe routes by which to claim asylum in the UK.
A furious Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP, outlined that “people are not coming because of the pull factor; but because of the push factor, because of the outrages they experience, that people here have no concept of, no experience themselves”. This bill attempts to strengthen the resistance of border controls into the UK, whilst failing to create any new safe routes by which people can access sanctuary. This traps some of the most vulnerable people in our global community in a limbo which can only lead to harm, and does nothing to address the challenges the government say they are seeking to respond to.
MPs even turned down the opportunity to address this contradiction, voting against a Conservative MP fronted amendment to set a 10,000-person resettlement target per year. Instead, the bill was returned to the Lords without any attempts to address the severe lack of proposed new safe routes in the bill, whilst heavily leaning on their place in the wider system.
Two areas which have long been of concern to JPIT’s Churches are the right of asylum seekers to work whilst they await their application outcome, and safe routes for family reunion. Amendments to both of these effects were also rejected in the House of Commons, however there still remains some scope for change in these areas.
Public polling from Refugee Action shows that 81% of the public support the right to work. Politicians from across the spectrum showed their support, and a number of Conservative MPs abstained on the vote in order for the government to create space for further conversation. The Home Office have agreed to meet with Conservative supporters of the amendment, raising hopes that some compromise might be reached before the House of Lords return amendments back to the Commons once again.
Lord Alf Dubs’ amendment to the bill proposing safe routes for family reunion in the UK was also defeated. However, there may still be scope for adaptation which sees concessions made for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, a group who have borne the harsh end of the bill’s policies. Our friends at Safe Passage have been working hard on this, and are not ready to give up the fight yet.
The legislation in the Nationality and Borders Bill has been dragging through parliament for almost a year. At every stage, the lazy, hostile and discriminatory nature of this bill has been emphasised by people from across civil society, faith groups and politics. We are proud that church members across the UK have been speaking up loudly in opposition to the bill, advocating instead for a more welcoming approach towards people seeking asylum. When 1000+ faith leaders wrote to the Prime Minister in February, calling on him not to ‘close the door’ on people fleeing conflict and persecution, we knew we had to stand clearly on the right side of this debate.
In a recent statement in response to the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference said: “As Christians, we are called to welcome the stranger, and to recognise God amongst them. We cannot abide any kind of discrimination which seeks to ignore or mar the image of God that all people bear. This Bill which judges a person’s legitimate claim to sanctuary based on how they arrive in the UK should not be tolerated.” We cannot tolerate the changes this Bill proposes, and we must continue to do all we can do show strong support for alternatives.
The journey is not over – and there’s still the chance for you to make your thoughts clear to your MP. The Bill now passes back to the House of Lords, before it will return to MPs, in a process casually known as ‘ping-pong’. Why not take the opportunity now to write to your MP, and ask that when the bill returns to the commons they vote in favour of compassion and welcome?