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Opinion: Not My Bill

Publication: Migrant Women Press

Refugee Welcome banner in front of a public building
Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

The UK Government is passing legislation that paves the way for state-enforced harm, exploitation, and unprecedented suffering. The Illegal Migration Bill is not about migration – it is a dehumanising strategy that abolishes the rights of some and attacks the rights of all.

On the 7th of March, Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, introduced the so-called Illegal Migration Bill in UK Parliament. Campaigners, organisations and activists from the fields of migration, human rights and anti-trafficking knew this legislation was coming and knew it would be bad. We just were not ready for that whole new level of bad.

Starting with the name itself – which I had to use to ensure readers know the piece of legislation I am referring to – a name that stems from the hateful propaganda of the far right, the shameful political agenda of the Conservatives, and ends up being an oxymoron in itself as if humans could ever be illegal. Words matter, and deliberately calling one group of people illegal is inaccurate and discriminatory. Furthermore, it denies them their humanity and implies criminality while seeking safety is a right, not a crime.

This new Bill will have devastating impacts on people who are coming to the UK to seek refuge, as it abolishes the asylum system as we know it. Indeed, under international and refugee law, everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution and not to be penalised based on the country’s arrival mode.

Street wall with No One is Illegal written
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

 The Bill ignores a critical truth: most asylum seekers are forced to enter irregularly, as there are no regular or safe routes to access the UK’s asylum system.

The Bill breaks away from these international standards and breaches international law. Moreover, it is so poorly thought through that one has to seriously question the legal competencies of those who wrote it. The Bill favours short-term rhetoric over long-term effectiveness, as it will push people to live a shadow existence in permanent limbo, unable to seek asylum and leave the country. 

For those arriving irregularly, the Bill removes their right to seek asylum in the UK, no matter how genuine their claim might be. On this point, the Bill ignores a critical truth: most asylum seekers are forced to enter irregularly, as there are no regular or safe routes to access the UK’s asylum system. 

It means that aside from very few resettlement schemes – which involve the selection and transfer of refugees from a State where they have sought protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them –  people do not have a way of claiming asylum outside of the UK, while not having a way to enter the UK regularly and claiming asylum here either.

The current Government makes spurious claims about migrants coming to the UK by breaking the rules and abusing the generosity of the British people. So it becomes ordinary for the truth to get lost in that spiral of derogatory language. The truth is that the majority of people who claim asylum in the UK are genuine refugees, with asylum grant rates at 74% overall – extremely high for countries such as Afghanistan (98%), Eritrea (99%), Syria (99%) and Sudan (83%).

Refugee Welcome placar at street protest.
Photo by Ra Dragon on Unsplash

The Bill denies access to the UK asylum system to those who arrive irregularly, despite clear evidence of them having genuine claims.  And while that is shocking, it is not all the Bill does.

It goes one step further by creating sweeping new powers for the Secretary of State to place people in immigration detention for as long as the Home Secretary believes it is necessary to remove that person. That includes families, pregnant women, their children, and children alone.

If this was not dystopian enough, the Bill creates a duty to remove, which means the Secretary of State must remove all people who entered irregularly to either their country of origin or a safe third country such as Rwanda. Thousands of people will be exposed to further harm in those countries, and thousands more will be left in limbo, unable to be removed but without any hope of securing lawful status in the UK.

The Bill also eliminates protection rights for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery, and it gives the Secretary of State the power to remove unaccompanied children from the supervision of local authority and put them directly into the care of the UK Home Office, despite their abysmal standards of care.

No Nations No Borders Banners at a street protest
Photo by Mortaza Shahed on Unsplash

This Bill is about dehumanising people already left behind: the trafficked, the survivors of war and conflicts, the women and the children whose greatest sin is to have parents who crossed the world to find sanctuary.

Many women seek asylum in the UK as survivors of gender-based violence, including rape, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation. These women have a legitimate case for protection under international law.

Evidence from the SEREDA project tells us that the current immigration and asylum systems already exacerbate existing trauma by having gender-insensitive and lengthy asylum procedures and often put survivors at increased risk of harm and exploitation, especially those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).

Refugees welcome poster at a public space
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Bill will remove the protections in place now, which, while not perfect, provide vital support to survivors looking to escape harm. People exploited for sexual and gender-based reasons, predominantly women, will have their rights and protections wiped out. Without those, they will be handed to criminals and traffickers, who will continue to operate with greater impunity.

As mentioned, the Bill makes provisions to detain people who enter “irregularly” indefinitely – there is no exception for pregnant women. That is a shocking provision even for this Government, which has an appalling standard on migrant detention conditions – as it removes the 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women introduced in 2016.

This vital safeguard will not protect pregnant women who are forced to take dangerous journeys to reach safety. Instead, they will be unable to claim asylum, detained indefinitely while the government try to remove them, and unable to apply for immigration bail in the first 28 days of their detention. All whilst pregnant.

The Bill is labelled as cruel, inhumane, and unworkable – whilst these attributes may all be accurate, they fall short of describing a Bill that proposes indefinite detention of pregnant women.

The Scottish Government has a vital role to play here if it decides to use its powers in areas where it has direct and devolved competencies, namely concerning child protection and victims of trafficking.

To add insult to injury, a baby born in the UK whose parents meet the conditions for removal will never be able to become a British citizen, ever, all in the name of punishing parents who come here to seek safety.

These women, men and children have the right to seek protection under international law. The Bill will remove that right and the possibility of ever making an asylum claim, paving the way for state-enforced abuse, re-exploitation, harm, and suffering.

This Bill is an attack on international law, on human rights, on basic dignity. It does not represent what people want, certainly not in Scotland, as people beautifully demonstrated at a protest in Glasgow when chanting, “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”.
The Scottish Government has a vital role to play here if it decides to use its powers in areas where it has direct and devolved competencies, namely concerning child protection and victims of trafficking. Unfortunately, that will not stop the Bill, but it can mitigate some of its worse impacts.

The feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming at times like this – this Bill needs to be kicked to the curb, and anything that falls short of that, fails.

However, I am not one to underestimate the power of our collective voice, the power of our civil society, of our grassroots organisations, of our Scottish Parliament and Government, even if limited. At times like this, we must stand united in firm opposition to this Bill.

Finally, if, after everything, all that is left is only our voice to say, “Not my Bill”, I am glad to have that on record.