Priti Patel’s borders bill is designed to look tough, not solve any real problems


Show caption Illustration: Eva Bee/The Guardian Opinion Priti Patel’s borders bill is designed to look tough, not solve any real problems Daniel Trilling Asylum claims in the UK are historically low. These punitive measures will only force more people into legal limbo Wed 14 Jul 2021 12.28 BST Share on Facebook

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We are living at a time where displacement is a major feature of life on this planet – but it’s one we have the resources to deal with. Faced with that reality, wealthy countries have a choice between acting in solidarity with the rest of the world’s population or pulling up the drawbridge.

Judging by the contents of the nationality and borders bill, which has its second reading in parliament on 19 and 20 July, the UK is opting for the latter. Although trailed by the home secretary, Priti Patel, who is the minister in charge, as a major reform of the country’s “broken” immigration system, its main effect will be to add an extra dose of cruelty to the existing arrangements.

The bill proposes to give the home secretary the power to expand the camp-style accommodation established last year, and to send asylum-seekers overseas for processing (even if no country has yet agreed to receive them). Prison sentences for “illegal entry” to the UK will be increased, while a clause that redefines the offence of “facilitating” illegal immigration – most probably aimed at making it easier to prosecute asylum-seekers who steer boats that cross the Channel – has been worded so vaguely that legal experts point out it would be likely to criminalise the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for the act of saving lives at sea.

The government’s hope is that these measures will deter people from making unauthorised journeys to the UK: people who do so will face this harsh and punitive system, whereas refugees resettled by official schemes will receive a more comfortable welcome. Although human rights groups have heavily criticised the plan – the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, warns that a two-tier system “risks breaching commitments under the Refugee Convention that clearly protect the universal right to seek asylum” – the government claims to be motivated by humanitarian principles. Patel says that the new bill will ensure that access to the UK’s asylum system is “based on need, not the ability to pay people-smugglers”.

It is easy to point out the hollowness of this claim – only a tiny fraction of the world’s refugee population is resettled via official schemes, leaving many people with no other option but to attempt dangerous journeys – but there is a familiar logic to it. The idea that tough deterrent measures are not only necessary to keep anxious voters happy but are ultimately in the best interest of refugees themselves is one that politicians in many parts of the rich world find appealing.

A telling account comes from a recent insider’s view of the EU response to the refugee crisis that peaked in 2015 and 2016. Hugo Brady, a former adviser to the then president of the European council, Donald Tusk, describes with striking candour how the bloc was initially paralysed by a split among European leaders between “doves” and “hawks”: those who wanted to prioritise Europe’s humanitarian values but did not necessarily think about the consequences of their actions, and those who saw border control and national sovereignty as the priority.

Eventually, suggests Brady, a “realist” position won out, which saw dangerous migration routes across the Mediterranean largely closed down – a resolution that has ultimately saved lives, since fewer people have attempted the journey. As Brady puts it: “The heart will have its day, but the head will always quietly insist: ‘Yes, but what then?’”

Such an approach may defuse a political crisis, but it still comes at a cost. For the EU, the result has been to trap thousands of people in dire conditions in Libya, where torture and abuse are common, or in the purgatory of Greece’s refugee camps. Deaths in the Mediterranean are lower than at the peak of the crisis, since the overall number of people crossing is lower, but they continue nonetheless: at least 1,146 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. The UN says the EU is partly to blame, since it fails to answer distress calls and has helped to push migrants back to Libya, while volunteer rescuers continue to be harassed by European governments.

Yet while the EU was faced with a genuine emergency in 2015 – larger than usual numbers of people were travelling to European in search of refuge, and Europe’s asylum system was unable to cope – the UK does not even have that excuse. Asylum claims in the UK are historically low. The spectacle of people crossing the Channel has been fuel for a rightwing moral panic, but it is happening largely because people’s method of travel has changed: where once they might have stowed away in lorries, they now use boats.

Instead of putting an end to these journeys, it is more likely that the bill will increase the number of people who get stuck in the limbo of Britain’s underfunded asylum system, since the punitive new measures it proposes will be open to legal challenge. A backlog of more than 100,000 asylum cases has reached record levels, while the Home Office was recently accused of running a secret and potentially unlawful policy of detaining people in order to deport them without properly considering their asylum claims.

The trouble with the politician’s-eye view is that it fails to take account of a fundamental reality of displacement, which is that people who lose their homes will feel compelled to move whatever the cost. Even when they reach a country that is nominally safe, some will keep on moving, because they are looking for places where they can build lives rather than simply exist. When refugees choose to travel to the UK, for instance, they frequently do so because of existing connections, whether through language or family, or because Britain is a former imperial power with historical ties to many parts of the world.

By the time a person in this situation reaches the UK’s shores, they are a witness to systems that have failed several times over. Something has gone terribly wrong to push them from their home in the first place, but this has been compounded by a global failure to meet their needs. If the government was serious about ending the dangerous journeys they take, then it would concentrate on fixing those systems and opening up safe routes in the meantime, rather than chasing the fantasy that there’s an optimum level of cruelty at which people in desperate situations can be made to disappear.

Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right