Refugees and the Borders Bill

Photo: Hastings Community of Sanctuary, 11th November 2021

JVL Introduction

JVL acts in alliance with refugee groups in opposition to the iniquitous Nationality and Borders Bill progressing through parliament at the end of 2021.

We reproduce here the talk given to the JVL Antiracism Alliance Network by Felicity Laurence of the Hastings Community of Sanctuary.

She starts by telling the story of witnesses from her group to the arrival of 54 desperate refugees on Hastings Beach in a small dinghy and the inhumane reaction of Border Force before the police intervene to force their rescue.

This is the human context for an exploration of the Nationality and Borders Bill which will exacerbate the absence of compassion, already promoted by our hostile legislative environment, towards those seeking asylum.

She ends with suggestions for combatting this racist Bill.


Exploring the Nationality and Borders Bill:
a view from the front-line

 Felicity Laurence, Hastings Community of Sanctuary

Refugees arrive on Hastings beach

One day at the end of August, a member of our local group, Hastings Supports Refugees, Rachel L, happened to be on the beach. After a while, she became aware of helicopters and lifeboat activity nearby, and then she saw a small dinghy, crammed with human beings, in the water.

Then this happened:

Instead of permitting the lifeboat to help the boat ashore, Border Force ordered that it be left to drift. The lifeboat was forbidden to land the 54 women, small children, and men, who had already been on the water for so long.  This went on for more than three hours. And then, the police who had been called to the beach and were waiting there, decided it couldn’t continue – it was too inhumane – and they called the boat in.

There were no provisions whatsoever for the sodden, cold and famished fellow human beings from the boat, so Rachel rushed off and grabbed as much food, drinks and dry clothes as she could – to the nearest Co-op where she cleared the shelves of sandwiches, to the nearest fish and chip shop to order as many bags of chips as she could carry, their kind staff leaping into action when she explained the situation. She raced back to the beach and Jane G, Co-Chair of Hastings Community of Sanctuary, dropped everything and raced there too.

Things moved very swiftly once everyone had finally been brought ashore from the tiny dinghy, drenched, and shaking with cold and hunger. Small kids with dire levels of blood sugar, including a baby. It was now just a question of trying to give them a little food and dry clothing as quickly as possible – in some cases resuscitating people, mainly rushing around negotiating with the police, lifeboat crew and the local beach RNLI crew. Border Force buses had now arrived, and there was no time to chat with those people, even to ask their names.

But as everyone was herded onto the buses, there was a moment of real human connection as each person turned and said, ‘thank you’: I have transcribed Rachel’s full account of everything that happened; of this moment, she said:

Each and every person, as they walked by… they were just so grateful, and so respectful – even after everything they had been through – their integrity was intact, and their sense of self.’

This gives a glimpse of the essential human connection so completely absent in the State’s response as expressed in the order to let the boat drift. Rachel’s testimony again:

I don’t think anybody any of us here in the UK, could understand what it must be like to put your family at that kind of risk. And I don’t think you could really think about it until you’ve met with these people because then you sort of begin to connect with that: because I know that in my lifetime that’s not going to happen to me. I’m not going to be asked to put my 3-year-old in a dinghy to travel 23 miles across a shipping channel, because I’ve fled from war and conflict and goodness knows what. And that it’s safer to do that than stay where you are. It’s an unbearable decision to have to make.

The south east coast of the UK has become a frontline where two starkly opposing narratives are playing out: our current Government’s demonisation of the ‘other’ who is portrayed as coming here to game the system and harm our way of life – and challenging this, the warm acceptance by many people of our moral and legal responsibility to welcome and look after those who seek refuge. I can see the sea from my home, and all along the coast the tiny boats have been coming – because for so many people there hasn’t been any other way of getting here once Covid set in. Now there are the people from Afghanistan who’ve been trekking across Europe trying to get here, often a place where they speak the language and have family ties.

The inhumanity of the Nationality and Borders Bill

So, to the Nationality and Borders Bill going through Parliament at the moment. Under the proposed laws, only those who are directly invited into the country under resettlement programmes will receive full asylum protection and be able to make new lives with us. There will be a two-tier system, and the most fundamental change, which is a direct challenge to the UN Refugee Convention, is the removal of the right to seek asylum to anyone entering by unapproved routes. Refugee Action has said very simply – that this is a ‘wrecking ball to the right to claim asylum’. The French MP for Calais agreed: ‘This suggestion tears apart the UN Geneva Conventions giving the right to everyone to apply to any country for asylum’.

The intentions are very clear if you examine the Bill – the Government really wants ultimately to jettison UK’s commitment to the Refugee Convention -and to hugely reduce our intake of refugees, which is already extremely low. We are around 14th in Europe, per capita. Many people, including refugee NGOs and the UN, are extremely worried about this, not least because it will set a deeply harmful example to other countries, such as Denmark, which are already contemplating ways of ridding their country of refugees.

Those who arrive by routes defined as ‘legal’, may be given a temporary form of asylum, subject to withdrawal at any point and to renewal after a new process every 30 months, so that they will have to re-apply, again, and again, and again…with the prospect of detention and deportation looming all the time.  It will be ten years before they might qualify for any ‘real’ asylum protection and be able to work and live properly among us as full citizens.

For those on that tiny dinghy, here’s what’s in store for them – a degree of harshness to the point of cruelty almost unthinkable in terms of the social contract we believe that we have in the UK, but nonetheless entirely believable in light of the recent trialling of mass incarceration of hundreds of young men in ex-army barracks.  One of these is Napier Barracks, not far from Hastings, where 400 people suffered really badly though last winter – nearly 200 catching Covid; eventually the conditions were judged inhumane and unfit by the Government’s own Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) and subsequently found to be unlawful by high court decree.  But somehow, in spite of vociferous opposition at all levels, the barracks endure, and more mass accommodation is already in use.

As they openly acknowledge, the Government has run the barracks as a trial run for what is now coming; not just of this kind of accommodation itself, but as an experiment to test the public’s tolerance of refugee camps on British soil; and to the Government’s rejection of all dissent, including that of its own independent inspectorate and of the High Court, which have condemned the use of the barracks on grounds of inhumanity and legality. It seems that, gradually, the idea of refugee camps on British soil is becoming ‘normalised’.

How the Act will affect refugees who arrive on our shores

These are the messages from the Borders and Nationality Bill for those people who came in that small dinghy:

First, Border Force would be permitted to ‘push back’ that tiny dinghy before it reached anywhere near our coast – and should any harm or death occur, there will be indemnity from prosecution. They are already practising manoeuvres, we get alerted to these from along the coast; this goes directly against maritime law apart from anything else, and Leah Lavane sent out that powerful letter from someone who’d been in the RNLI who condemned this in the strongest terms possible.  Daniel Trilling has written a strong Guardian article on the phenomenon of refugee pushback. what we’re seeing right now on the Poland/Belarus border. It’s been happening for a long time from Greece and in the Mediterranean, with hundreds of deaths.

Once past this gauntlet, the asylum claims of all adults on that dinghy would be deemed inadmissible simply by virtue of the way they have entered the country.  This is in spite of the Government’s own figures, that 98% of people arriving in these boats do actually claim asylum. The Government wants them to claim it somewhere else, notwithstanding that France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and other neighbouring countries already accept vastly more refugees per capita than the UK.

It gets much, much worse, however. All adults on that boat would be liable to a prison sentence of up to 4 years for ‘knowingly’ entering the country in an unapproved way. Again, there no consideration of why a person has made that terrible journey, for example, because of torture, or modern slavery. We know that the vast majority come from areas of conflict. The implications are frightening. The possible fate of the children with those adults, calls to mind the anguished scenes of separated families at the US/Mexico border.

Furthermore, anyone helping them to enter the country would also face prosecution, and potentially long sentences, up to life. This means that not only smugglers and traffickers will be liable to criminal proceedings, but potentially crews on RNLI lifeboats and people like Rachel and Jane, anyone who facilitates spontaneous entry, whether ‘for gain’ or not. The removal of these two words ‘for gain’ is one of the most egregious aspects of the Bill. As with so many parts of it, a couple of small words added or removed will have huge impacts on people’s lives, even making the difference between life and death. In the incident on the beach, it becomes a nice point of law to consider if the police who went against the Border Force directive would be guilty of a criminal offence under this new law?

Then there are the planned mass reception centres, or refugee camps, replacing the current practice of accommodation within communities: tenders have already quietly been put out to build structures to accommodate more than 8000 people based on the experiment with Napier Barracks.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the State’s vision is ‘offshoring’, emulating Australia’s notorious practice, and sending people to a third country willing to accept our payment. This would include families with children as well as families already awaiting asylum claims. This is precisely what happened in Australia: a family consisting of mother, father and two very small girls seized in a dawn raid after two years of living in a supportive community awaiting an asylum decision, and sent off to one of Australia’s island detention centres.  This case came to public attention when one of the children subsequently developed a serious illness and had to be flown back the long distance to hospital. The case drew wide public condemnation and shone a renewed light on the desperate abusive conditions in these offshore detention centres.

People sent offshore would then be in never-ending detention, under the laws and the guards of that country, out of reach of any legal or humanitarian help from anyone in the UK.  Countries mooted so far include: Ascension Island, Rwanda, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Moldova and Albania.  Spokespeople from several of these countries have robustly refuted any idea that they will agree this with the UK, but nevertheless, our Government continues to pursue it

Condemnations of the Bill

The Bill has been widely condemned as unlawful, unworkable, and immoral, including by the United Nations. Across the UK, there is a growing swell of grassroots opposition.  Our group, Hastings Community of Sanctuary, have held some street stalls, and collected over 550 signatures in a couple of days for our petition which we took to our MP, a Conservative who is strongly in favour of the Bill. The petition asked her to oppose the Bill and work for a fair and humane asylum system. We were surprised that the great majority of the people whom we encountered in the streets felt that the Bill’s harsh new legislation is ‘going too far’.

I attended a webinar recently with Colin Yeo, prominent immigration lawyer who runs the Free Movement blog and wrote the seminal 2020 book: Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System. His view of the Bill is that firstly, a lot of what’s in it isn’t really new since many horrible ways to treat people seeking asylum already exist although the  bill accentuates negative treatment; and secondly a really dangerous addition is the criminalisation of people trying to claim asylum, and of those who help them even without this being ‘for gain’. The UN submission lays this out with chilling clarity; thirdly, he pinpointed the powers given to that the Secretary of State to change anything and make any decisions she (or he) wants to without any proper scrutiny or accountability. in or out of Parliament.

Bella Sankey, is Director of Detention Action and another ubiquitous, strong voice in opposition to the Bill. She is extremely worried about the offshoring plans unlike Colin Yeo, who is not so sure that the Government will proceed. Having read the intricate and extensive wording of this section of the Bill, in phrasing which is completely devoid of any sense that it refers to extremely vulnerable human beings, I share her apprehension.

The Bill has just completed the Committee Stage. Many amendments have been brought, and countless powerful submissions have been made. The UNHCR’s submission is one of the most brilliant analyses of the Bill and is utterly chilling. The report stage for the Bill will take place after mid-November, and it proceeds thereafter to the 3rd reading, before moving on to the Lords. More amendments are already tabled, including one which calls for the offshoring section to be removed.

What to do

We have to speak out. Our MP told us that she wouldn’t vote for amendments, but that she would, however, write to the Home Secretary to represent our concerns and convey our suggestions, and we have learned from others that this can be an effective way of raising concerns and perhaps making the Government aware, through a steady stream of communications coming from many MPs, that there is significant unease, at least concerning the harshest measures of the Bill.

I’ve had this idea of ‘tell 5 people’ and get them to tell 5 more to get outside our own bubble.  We managed that on the stall as we got the support of over 500 people in the small town of Hastings in just a few hours, over a couple of days. Most knew nothing or virtually nothing about the Bill but when we told them about what is being proposed, the vast majority wanted to sign and this is in a place where opinion about refugees is very polarised. We have produced a summary of the Bill for others to use in the preparation of their leaflets.

Get the humanitarian views from the RNLI and letter from a member of the RNLI for 49 years as widely disseminated as possible and also the recent BBC film (from 12 – 26 minutes in ) of the Eastbourne lifeboat crew rescuing a group of refugees from a foundering small dinghy in the middle of the Channel. Read the concerns of the Joint Council on the Welfare of Immigrants, Amnesty, Freedom from Torture, The Jesuit Refugee Service.

Finally, of course, let us be clear that the treatment of refugees, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the whole thing, is racist to its core and has to be resisted.

Comments (3)

  • Stephen Richards says:

    Refugees, how many does a civilised democracy such as Israel take in?

  • Jean Fitzpatrick says:

    thank you for sending such clear information.
    What our govt is shameful. It is becoming a frightening country to live in.

  • Margaret West says:

    The government are more interested in oppressing refugees than displaying any sort of compassion
    and this is evidenced by the Bill.

    The current situation on the Belarus/Polish border
    is a case in point. Regardless of the role of politics
    in the two countries – the UK are not interested in helping the refugees. Rather – they are
    strengthening the barbed wire which keeps them
    in dire need where they are. A more humane solution would be – with Belarus agreement – to provide some in-situ minimum shelter, food and medical help for
    these poor souls.

    Belarus could hardly refuse the challenge
    given their promises and indeed avowed
    intent of “help” for these refugees…

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