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What Britain’s ‘stop the boats’ bill will actually mean for refugees

The UN has said that the Tories’ illegal migration bill effectively amounts to an asylum ban

Hein Aung Htet, 25, was studying for his postgraduate degree in the UK when Burma’s ruling party, the National League for Democracy, were deposed in a military coup. Since then, violence has racked the country – at the end of 2021, there were 1.2 million Burmese asylum seekers and refugees. Hein Aung Htet is one of them: he applied for refugee status as soon as the situation in Burma worsened. “I still haven’t got refugee status, and it’s been almost a year [since I applied],” he says.

To say Hein Aung Htet has had a difficult year would be an understatement. He recalls witnessing “abuses of power” at his screening interview, particularly towards Albanian asylum seekers. “There is also a long wait for asylum seekers,” he says. “But instead of fixing it, the government has just gone ahead with the illegal migration bill.”

Last month, the government introduced the illegal migration bill – or the ‘stop the boats’ bill – in an effort to ‘crack down’ on asylum seekers crossing the Channel. It’s the latest in a long line of anti-migrant legislation to come through in recent years, and arguably one of the most damaging.

If passed, the bill would allow the government to criminalise, detain and deport asylum seekers. If someone tries to enter the country by crossing the Channel, they will be banned from claiming asylum in the UK for life. The bill would also place restraints on the right of asylum seekers to appeal decisions in court, which seems to be an attempt to overcome the government’s legal difficulties in implementing its plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Additionally, the bill would also impose a cap on the number of people who can claim asylum via safe routes.

According to the UN, the legislation “would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be.” Luke Annis, an immigration lawyer, explains that the bill will impact almost all asylum seekers, a significant number of victims of trafficking, and many other people with human rights claims. “Given that the vast majority of asylum seekers in the UK will have entered the country without a legal right to be here, the bill effectively ends their right to claim asylum in the country.” Hein Aung Htet describes the bill as “cruel”.

While Rishi Sunak and home secretary Suella Braverman are incredibly adamant that it’s vital to stop Channel crossings, they’ve yet to explain how a refugee or asylum seeker could come to the UK safely and legally: when Braverman was recently interviewed on Radio 4, she failed to answer how a hypothetical teenage orphan from West Africa with family links to the UK could find a safe and legal route to claim asylum.

It’s also incredibly unlikely that the bill will act as a deterrent for Channel crossings – as those who cross are already so desperate that they’re risking their lives – and will do nothing but criminalise thousands of people feeling war and torture. “While the bill’s stated intention is to stop people coming to the UK via unsafe routes, it is highly unlikely that people intent on coming to the UK will be deterred,” Annis says. “If nothing else, because they probably will not hear about or understand the bill. For this reason, thousands more people are likely to arrive in the UK over the next year, the vast majority will then be detained while the UK government either does or does not find another country willing to take them.”

The human cost of the bill is nothing short of catastrophic. Speaking to Dazed, Nazek Ramadan, director at Migrant Voice, a migrant-led organisation, adds that the bill will push vulnerable people into dangerous situations. “By denying people seeking safety the right to seek asylum because of how they arrived, and in particular preventing modern slavery victims from being able to be recognised as such, this government is all but ensuring that more people end up being preyed upon by gangs,” she says.

“Many face being indefinitely detained and left in limbo, potentially for years, in inhumane camps and unsuitable accommodation,” she continues. “The damage which that will cause to their mental and physical health is incalculable. We have already witnessed firsthand the harmful impact of the government’s previous rhetoric and use of hotels. This will only exacerbate that harm.” Annis adds that forced removals from the UK are deeply distressing, for both the people being removed and their loved ones (and even the people made to carry out deportations). “There is always a risk of harm, self-harm and even suicide. If this is already the case when individuals are being forcibly returned to their home country, it is likely to be even worse if they are now to be forcibly removed to a country they may not even have heard of [like Rwanda],” he explains.

In 2022, more than 45,700 people – women, men and children – climbed into small dinghies and risked their lives to cross the Channel in order to claim asylum in the UK. Arrivals across the Channel are steadily increasing, from 8,400 in 2020 to 28,500 in 2021, with officials predicting that around 60,000 people could make the journey in 2023. But this isn’t particularly shocking, nor are these figures totally unprecedented: while the Home Office received 74,751 asylum applications in 2022, they received 84,130 in 2002. And as the Red Cross points out on their website, it’s normal for the number of refugees and people seeking asylum to fluctuate depending on what’s happening in the world. Conflict in several countries has swelled recent figures.

“The damage which that will cause to their mental and physical health is incalculable. We have already witnessed first hand the harmful impact of the government’s previous rhetoric and use of hotels. This will only exacerbate that harm” – Nazek Ramadan, director at Migrant Voice

Largely thanks to red tops who run splashes with sensationalist headlines like “Migrants milking Britain’s benefits” or “Migrants: how many more can we take?, many people have absorbed the untrue message that the UK is already at ‘breaking point’ and totally overwhelmed with an influx of asylum seekers. But in reality, people seeking asylum make up just 0.2 per cent of the population, a low figure compared to most other European countries. While the UK sees eight asylum seekers for every 10,000 people here, the figure is 23 in Germany and 43 in Austria. It’s also untrue that thousands of people who arrive on small boats are ‘economic migrants’: the vast majority of people crossing the Channel have a legitimate claim to asylum. Statistics aside, it’s evident that nobody would take such a dangerous and traumatic journey unless they were truly desperate.

Ramadan notes that the bill will also disproportionately impact young asylum seekers, who have often had to interrupt their studies or training in their home countries to seek safety. “While they are technically allowed to go to university in the UK, the conditions they are kept in for months on end while their asylum claim is reviewed, coupled with the prohibitive costs of UK higher education and the lack of financial support, effectively prevents them from continuing their studies,” she explains. This in turn often has a “disastrous” effect on their mental health, as well as impacting their future career and lives. “This bill further strips young people of their rights, of their childhoods.”

In the UK if someone was 18 to 25 and had gone through what many of these young people have, it would be recognised that they were still having to rebuild their lives and were affected by the trauma which they had been through,” she continues. “Rather than recognising that young asylum seekers have the same, and even higher, support needs, this government is planning on implementing policies which will inevitably lead to many ending up in exploitation and harm’s way.”

Thankfully, the ‘stop the boats’ bill has been met with widespread opposition. According to the UN, the law would be a “clear breach of the refugee convention”, while several other legal commentators also have flagged that the bill may not be compatible with the UK’s commitments under international treaties. This is because there is a requirement in international law that a claim for asylum can be made in any country, and that a refugee may cross borders in an effort to reach the place where they’re seeking asylum (basically, there is no ‘illegal’ way to claim asylum). A number of NGOs, MPs, and academics are also opposing the bill, and several public figures have spoken out against it too. There’s hope yet that we can oppose the bill before it’s passed into law – and we should do everything we can to stop it before it’s too late.