“Its main effect will be to add an extra dose of cruelty to the existing arrangements.” That’s the impact the Tories’ Nationality and Borders Bill — just passed by the House of Commons for a second time — will have on asylum-seekers, as summed up by migration writer Daniel Trilling. The arrangements are extremely cruel already.
For almost three decades, Labour and Tory governments have progressively tightened access to asylum in the UK and restrictions on those seeking it when they are here. They have normalised barbaric practices including imprisoning asylum-seekers, forcibly dispersing them around the country and denying them the right to work and access normal benefits and services — in addition to enthusiastic use of deportations. Now the Johnson-Patel Tories are working to normalise new barbarisms.
The bill proposes to give the Home Secretary powers to expand the camp-style “accommodation” established last year. This after the explosion of Covid cases in the Napier barracks in Kent.
51 asylum-seekers have died in Home Office accommodation in the last five years, with the number increasingly sharply in the last 18 months. Only three of the deaths were a result of Covid (asylum-seekers are usually young). Four committed suicide. Three of the dead were babies.
The Tories’ bill also paves the way for asylum-seekers to be sent overseas for “processing”. The Tories have mooted disused ferries, abandoned oil rigs and remote islands in the South Atlantic as possibilities. The UK Refugee Council described such “offshoring” of asylum-seekers, as practised by Australia in 2001-2007 and since 2012, as “an inhumane policy” producing “appalling outcomes including high levels of self-harm and mental illness”.
The government wants to increase prison sentences for “illegal entry” to the UK, from six months at present to a year or up to four years in certain circumstances. Priti Patel has endlessly claimed to be promoting this legislation to crack down on “people-smugglers”. But startlingly, the Tories want to remove the words “and for gain” from the current restrictions on helping asylum-seekers enter the UK. Even the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has complained: it could be criminalised for saving lives at sea.
The rhetoric about people-smugglers is Orwellian. A government actually concerned to tackle criminal exploitation of refugees’ plight would open up, not further close down, safe legal routes for those who want asylum to come to and remain in the UK.
At the same time as pushing its Bill the government is escalating deportations.
After years of refugee-bashing, asylum claims in the UK are historically low, highlighting the extent of the hysteria from the government and right-wing media about tiny numbers crossing the channel from France. There are about 200,000 people who have been given or are seeking asylum in the UK — as against, for instance, over a million in Lebanon, whose population is a tenth of ours. But the reason to champion asylum rights is not that the UK has proportionally few asylum-seekers. It is a matter of defending human rights, reasserting human and working-class solidarity, and trying to bring some minimum of rationality and safety to a world in chaos.
We’re not against border quarantine rules, or even short-term border curbs to slow Covid spread. But the Tories’ rules are for a world where the well-off travel freely, while people for whom access to a new country is life-or-death are harassed and banned.
The labour movement should put itself at the forefront of opposing the Tories’ assault and fighting back for asylum rights, or it has no right to present itself as the representative and champion of the oppressed and exploited. We fail to oppose the Tories’ pumping of xenophobic and racist poison into society at our peril. And our movement must reckon with its own role in creating this desperate situation.
It was not the Tory governments of the 1990s, but the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who erected the core structures of the anti-migrant edifice the Tories have since built higher and higher. Those Blairite policies were a major factor enabling the right-wing insurgency in British society and politics since the turn of the century, bringing us the BNP, UKIP, Brexit and now Johnson's populist nationalism...
As with Blair’s wider right-wing agenda, his nurturing of the hostile environment would have been impossible or much harder if the unions had stood up against it. The labour movement can make this right by acknowledging its past failings and, most importantly, genuinely fighting to change the situation now.
That means speaking out and mobilising against the Tories’ agenda, starting with the Nationality and Borders Bill. It means developing and campaigning for a programme to radically change immigration and asylum policy in the UK.
Labour under Keir Starmer has criticised the government on asylum rights, but mutedly. It has failed to advocate a clear alternative, while engaging in nationalistic pandering. Its criticism sounds unconvincing.
Workers’ Liberty argues for free movement and equal rights for all, everywhere in the world. We oppose immigration controls. Those in the labour movement who cannot be immediately convinced to support this policy should be challenged to go beyond woolly pro-migrant rhetoric and take up clear proposals for change.
Let’s get the Labour Campaign for Free Movement’s proposals to Labour conference this autumn, push similar demands out through the labour movement, and get people out on the streets campaigning for them.
Migrant rights and Labour
These are the demands the Labour Campaign for Free Movement is promoting for Labour Party conference (Brighton, 25-29 September). Full text of their motion for Constituency Labour Parties here.
• Re-enter Europe’s free movement area, and pursue free movement with other countries, including in all future trade deals.
• Reject immigration systems based on migrants’ incomes, savings or utility to employers.
• Abolish “no recourse to public funds”, minimum income requirements, and all Hostile Environment policies including restrictions on NHS access.
• Introduce an easy process for all UK residents to gain permanent residency with equal rights.
• Introduce equal voting rights for all UK residents.
• Guarantee safe routes for asylum seekers and rights to family reunion, work and social security.
• End all immigration raids, detention and deportation, especially childhood-arrival deportations and racist “double sentencing”.
• Replace Settled Status with an automatic Right to Stay.
• Support workers who refuse to implement deportations or Hostile Environment measures.