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Nadia Whittome: "Make no mistake, this Bill is an attack on the fundamental human right to seek asylum"

2 October 21 words: Nadia Whittome
photos: Fabrice Gagos

In her regular column, MP for Nottingham East Nadia Whittome explores the ongoing refugee crisis, and the threat posed by the The Nationality and Borders Bill.

It was impossible to watch the images and videos coming out of Afghanistan as the Taliban assumed control and not feel horrified. Thousands scrambled to escape - some people so desperate that they risked their lives clinging to the wheels of planes.

The British public rightly demanded our government do more to help Afghans trying to flee. And I was inundated with emails from both the Afghan community here in Nottingham East with relatives in Afghanistan, but also from many other constituents outraged at the situation. 

The government ramped up its rhetoric in response, with the Foreign Secretary saying: “We are a big hearted-nation that provides a safe haven to those fleeing persecution.” But their rhetoric does not match their actions. 

In recent years, the Home Office has rejected the asylum claims of many Afghans fleeing the Taliban, claiming they would be safe in Kabul, and deported them back to Afghanistan. Many were just teenagers. How many will now be imprisoned, tortured, killed? 

And right now, the government is pushing through a Bill which will make it harder for Afghan refugees to find safety here. The Nationality and Borders Bill proposes a series of reforms to the asylum system that the government claims will deter illegal entry, increase the fairness and efficacy of the system, and make it easier to remove those without leave to remain. However, make no mistake, this Bill is an attack on the fundamental human right to seek asylum. 

The Bill seeks to reward asylum seekers who come to the UK via legal routes, however there are currently no such routes, and the Bill makes no reference to creating any. Those who come ‘unlawfully’ may have their claims treated differently, such as being offered a shorter period of leave or finding themselves with no recourse to public funds, amongst other discriminatory provisions. 

Additionally, the Home Secretary recently proposed plans to push boats in the Channel back to France. Not only is this tactic severely lacking in compassion, it directly breaks international maritime law and will only lead to more deaths at sea. I strongly oppose the use of push-backs in any context. Refugees are forced to take to the waters in unseaworthy dinghies because of a lack of safe routes to claim asylum. 

Right now, the government is pushing through a Bill which will make it harder for Afghan refugees to find safety here

The Bill also removes protection for victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. Under the new proposals, survivors identified as potential trafficking victims will not be automatically released from detention, leaving them in an environment that exposes them to risk of serious harm. Without safeguards in place to protect survivors from detention, they may be discouraged from coming forward, playing directly into the hands of the traffickers and criminals that the government says it wants to get tougher on.  

It’s clear that our asylum system needs a serious overhaul - this is something human rights groups and campaigners have been advocating for years. But this should be in order to improve it, not to create a two-tier asylum system, reinforcing the good vs. bad refugee narrative and jeopardising our international legal obligations.  

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Refugee Convention and it seems the government needs reminding that seeking sanctuary is not a crime. There are so many voices from refugee and asylum seeker communities that deserve to be heard, and these are the voices that need to be amplified, rather than divisive and false narratives spun in the right wing media.

I know many of us feel hopeless when facing the cruelty of this government’s legislative agenda, the faulty and harmful rhetoric surrounding immigration, and the immigration system as a whole. But there are also so many fantastic organisations fighting for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers - from groups monitoring human rights abuses in the Channel, to people providing legal advice and food to asylum seekers, to those protesting against deportation flights.

I’ve recently been in Brighton for the Labour Party Conference. While I was there, I marched with hundreds of others through the streets to demand that the holiday company TUI stop running brutal deportation flights. These flights tear families apart and put people in danger. In July, my office successfully fought for two constituents who were to be deported to Zimbabwe. Both had been in the UK for years and had family here. 

If you are looking for ways to help refugees and asylum seekers locally, get in touch with some excellent community organisations such as the Nottingham and Notts Refugee Forum, Refugee Roots, Nottingham Arimathea Trust and Host Nottingham to find out more about how you can get involved.

nadiawhittome.org

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