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Photo by Rachel Lowden, Hastings Supports Refugees.

A few weeks ago, a small, fragile dinghy overloaded with nearly 60 women, men and children drifted into a beach not far from Hastings. Some people from our community rushed to help, with hot chips, warm clothes, shoes for cold, swollen, sodden feet, sandwiches and biscuits for little children. The Government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through Parliament, and labelled by many now as the ‘anti-refugee bill’, would remove the right to asylum from every adult in that dinghy, and sentence them to be held indefinitely in a mass reception centre, deported or sent to an offshore holding facility wherever possible and liable to up to four years in prison, because arriving in a dinghy will become a criminal offence. It won’t matter at all why they have come, what desperate situations they are fleeing, or what they have experienced. Here are the thoughts of HCoS member Pal Luthra on the implications of this Bill and why he joins caring people throughout the land in opposing it.

Why Sally-Ann Hart has got it wrong on nationality bill

Thanks to Hastings Online Times for permission to reproduce this article

Hastings Online Times

Friday August 20th 2021

The Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through Parliament will drastically reduce the rights of asylum-seekers, yet it is wholeheartedly supported by Hastings & Rye MP Sally-Ann Hart. Pal Luthra, a member of Hastings Community of Sanctuary, East Sussex Freedom From Torture and Amnesty International, explains why he equally wholeheartedly opposes the MP’s stance.

Our local Member of Parliament, Ms Sally Ann Hart, stated on her Facebook page on Friday 16 July that she will support the Nationality and Borders Bill (the bill) which was debated in Parliament on 19 and 20 July. Ms Hart claims that many residents of Hastings and Rye have written to her over a number of months, concerned at the growing numbers of ‘illegal’ channel crossings.

However, she does not say that many residents, including myself, have also written to her opposing the government’s draconian proposals and pointing out that it is not illegal to cross the channel to seek asylum. The truth is that the bill marks the latest stage in the ongoing attack on refugee rights in the UK by Ms Hart’s party and this government. They claim that two key objectives of the bill are to break up smuggling gangs, while also increasing ‘safe and legal routes’ for refugees to reach the UK.

This is a falsehood, as nothing in this bill will do either of these things. Instead, the provisions in this anti-refugee bill are likely to further demonise people seeking protection and safety in this country. Seeking asylum is a basic human right. But this bill will make seeking asylum without approved entry illegal and a criminal offence.

The Home Office uses Napier Barracks in Folkestone as a reception centre, despite this being declared illegal. The barracks became a Covid super-spreader early this year.

The fundamental problem with the bill is that it proposes to judge someone’s means of arrival as the test of whether they are deserving of protection in the UK, rather than their circumstances and their need for this protection. Asylum-seekers arriving ‘irregularly’ will be deemed inadmissible, held in ‘reception centres’ instead of being dispersed to supportive community settings, as now (and as in Hastings since 1999), or immediately removed.

Where they cannot be removed, they will be given only brief and temporary protection, no access to financial support, and very limited rights to family reunion. A temporary and second-class status granted not on the basis of the reality of their need for protection and safety, but purely on their method of arrival, is cruel and unjustified.

Offshore prison-like facilities

What the government really wants to do is to transport asylum seekers to offshore prison-like facilities while they wait for a decision on their claim – a process that can take years. This idea is clearly inspired by the infamous and widely criticised offshore detention centres used by the Australian Government on the islands of Nauru and also Manus in Papua New Guinea.

Not only men, but also women and children are held in this abusive regime which has resulted in death, lasting physical and mental health damage, human rights violations, child and sexual abuse, and a considerable cost to the public purse. It is a model that does not work, and at this moment there is a growing clamour among the Australian public to stop this practice. The UK government has no agreements so far with other countries for such plans to be put in place, but the bill encompasses this intention.

The bill has faced criticism, including from Amnesty International and the United Nations, for containing inaccuracies, misrepresenting the UK’s obligations under international law and weakening the protection available for people fleeing torture and persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention specifically protects people seeking asylum from refusal on the grounds of their method of entry, for the very reason that for most of those fleeing desperate situations there is no viable way of seeking permission to enter a country in order to apply for asylum.

But this bill will criminalise people who attempt or manage to reach the UK ‘irregularly’, with anyone entering ‘knowingly’ without permission liable to up to four years in prison. To propose that the UK now criminalise asylum-seekers or turn their boats around, when they have no choice but to come without official permission, is abhorrent, unethical and in breach of international law.

MP Sally-Ann Hart supported the bill in the Commons (here speaking on another occasion – photo from her Facebook page).

MP Sally-Ann Hart supported the bill in the Commons (here speaking on another occasion – photo from her Facebook page).

The government argues that if someone has travelled through, or has a connection to, another ‘safe’ country, they should seek asylum there, and that the UK does not have to consider their claim at all. They will seek to remove the person as quickly as possible to that ‘safe third country’ to have their claim for protection considered there.  However, since leaving the EU, the UK has lost agreements necessary to return people to EU countries. Without such agreements, these proposals are not workable.

Appeal process

The bill proposes to set up a fast-track appeal process for claims that are considered ‘manifestly unfounded’ or are made just prior to removal. Asylum claims and appeals made in detention will be subject to an accelerated procedure, potentially resurrecting the Detained Fast Track, which was found to be unlawful in 2015, and to have resulted in thousands being wrongly deported – many to persecution and in some cases, it is believed, death.

Freedom From Torture, in their 2019 report Lessons Not Learned, found that 40% of asylum refusals are overturned on appeal, meaning that the Home Office very often gets the decision wrong in the first instance. The asylum appeal process is thus vital.

The bill extends current measures to facilitate the removal of refused asylum seekers and other migrants. Among these is the use of destitution as an incentive to encourage people to leave once their claim has been refused. People claiming asylum live on just over £5 a day – already far below the poverty line – and have no right to work. Stripping people of that minimal financial support and pushing them into destitution and street homelessness has seriously damaging effects on the safety, stability and physical and mental health of this already extremely vulnerable population.

A particularly troubling aspect of the bill is its approach to evidence from survivors of torture – of whom there are thousands among those who arrive ‘irregularly’. Under the proposals contained in the bill, little weight is to be given to evidence, such as independent expert medical reports, that is presented only later in the process, as is often the case for extremely traumatised people who often do not disclose confidential and sensitive information (for example of torture or rape) earlier in the process.

Survivors of torture

There is a real risk that the ‘one-stop’ process brought in by this bill will penalise survivors of torture, who need more time to process what has happened to them and to build trust before they feel safe to disclose their experience.

If someone has been tortured, they can be assessed by a doctor who will document evidence of torture. At the moment, people seeking asylum trust their legal representative to choose and instruct independent experts, including those working for Freedom from Torture, to provide such assessments.

Many Hastings residents share the writer’s concerns about the bill (photo: Refugee Buddy Project).

The government wants to either put in place a panel of pre-approved experts of their choosing to write these reports, or require experts to be jointly agreed by both the claimant and the Home Office.  In effect, the Home Office would have the power to veto any report by an independent expert that they do not approve of, and control who can examine a vulnerable and traumatised individual.

Yet again, the Government has contrived a problem by questioning medical reports by independent experts. There is already a system in place to hold expert witnesses to account, and there is no evidence of abuse to justify such a drastic solution. This is an attempt to discredit and undermine the authority and independence of doctors and question their honesty, trustworthiness, objectivity and impartiality. These proposals will build further delay into the system and deny access to justice.

Fortress Britain

This government wants to build Fortress Britain, not Global Britain, and deny access to the asylum system to deter desperate people seeking security and safety for themselves and their families. The current asylum system is slow, opaque, under-resourced, and hostile to the people that it is designed to support and this Bill will make it even worse.

This bill is cruel, unworkable and unjustified. It is primarily oriented to sending a message to the British public that Ms Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is tough on immigration. It amounts to dog whistle politics and promotes xenophobia and racism. I oppose Ms Hart’s stance on the bill and like many other local people in Hastings and Rye I stand against the demonisation of asylum-seekers by Ms Hart, her party and this government.

Putting Sally-Ann Hart’s comments in context

During the Commons second reading of the Nationality and Borders bill on 20 July Sally-Ann Hart made a number of statements which were misleading or need to be put in context. Paul Luthra explains.

What Sally-Ann Hart said: “All Governments have a responsibility to their citizens to keep their country safe, and ensure economic and social stability for their citizens.”

“Refugees are unique in their plight. They have fled their country and are unable or unwilling to return because of war, violence or fear of violence, or being persecuted because of their race, religion, sexuality, nationality or political opinion.”

Pal Luthra’s comment: All governments have rights and responsibilities to manage and control their borders in conformity with obligations under international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. As a signatory to the 1967 Protocol, the United Kingdom has legal obligations to protect those seeking asylum and who qualify as refugees. Therefore it is puzzling that this Bill proposes to make channel crossing a criminal offence. If Ms Hart were true to her words she should be opposing this Bill, not supporting it.

This graph, compiled by the Norwegian Refugee Council, shows that in the last decade the UK lagged well behind much of the EU in terms of refugees settled as a proportion of population.

SAH: “The United Kingdom has a proud record of helping those fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny from around the world…The UK is a global leader in refugee settlement. Between 2016 and 2019, as a country we resettled more refugees from outside Europe than any member state of the EU.”

Comment: Many less well-resourced countries than the UK have accepted much larger numbers of refugees: Lebanon is currently hosting an estimated 1.5m refugees from Syria, 19.5 % of its total population), Jordan is home to 2.3m Palestinian refugees (10.5% of its total population), while Uganda has received 1.7 million refugees over the last 10 years (3.7 % of its total population).

Malta is the Western country that has received the most refugees relative to its population – 2.7% of the total population). That compares with 132,349 refugees and 77,244 asylum-seekers in the UK at end 2020, which combined are equivalent to 0.31% of its total population, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

If the UK is going to be a global leader in refugee settlement then it will have to do better than Sweden, Greece, Austria, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Finland, France, Italy and Bulgaria (see graph).

SAH: “I welcome the ambition to see an asylum system based on need, so as to better protect and suppasort those who require our help the most.”

Comment: Ms Hart either does not understand the Bill or is being disingenuous. The Bill is divisive, it pits one group of  “good” asylum seekers against another group of “bad” or “illegal” asylum-seekers. Under international law, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum-seeker.

It stacks the criminal justice system against some of the most vulnerable people coming to the UK to seek safety and protection. It does not offer protection on the basis of need but the method and route of arrival.

SAH: “It is well known that refugees seeking asylum in the UK are not penalised for entering illegally…I welcome this Bill because it seeks to retain a compassionate approach and combine it with increased firmness, fairness and efficiency.”

Comment: Ms Hart appears not to know the distinction between refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK. An asylum-seeker is a person seeking asylum and protection because they fear persecution or they have experienced violence or human rights violations.

A refugee is a person whose need for asylum has been recognised and has been given refugee status as defined in the Refugee Convention, allowing them to make a life in the country for five years, after which they can apply to stay for further five-year periods.

Moreover, the UK immigration and border control system is such that it results in asylum-seekers facing detention at any time, even if they have committed no crime. Detention has no time limit and many endure months or even years of indefinite detention whilst waiting for a decision.

There are no safeguards in place to prevent the detention of vulnerable persons, including those who have faced imprisonment, torture and /or sexual violence in the countries from which they have fled.


Image by Safwa Chowdhury, from the Hastings Community of Sanctuary Campaigns Team.