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by Margaret Taylor
04 November 2021
In context: Nationality and Borders Bill

The Conservative government hopes the bill, if implemented, will prevent asylum seekers crossing the English Channel by boat. Picture: Alamy.

In context: Nationality and Borders Bill

The UK Government describes its Nationality and Borders Bill as the “cornerstone” of its new plan for immigration, but the Law Society of Scotland has warned it risks criminalising those who attempt to save the lives of asylum seekers at sea

What is it?

The bill was introduced by Home Secretary Priti Patel in July with the aim of deterring migrants from crossing the English Channel to seek asylum in the UK.

The UK Government says the bill has three main objectives: to create a fairer system that will “better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum”; to deter illegal entry into the UK; and to remove people “with no right to be here”.

Measures proposed in the bill include introducing a maximum life sentence for those convicted of people smuggling, coming up with new assessments to identify adult migrants pretending to be children, creating a downgraded status for asylum seekers who have not been deported to a safe country, and giving the Border Force new powers to stop and divert vessels suspected of carrying illegal migrants.

The bill also contains powers to allow asylum claims to be processed outside the UK, which could pave the way for applications to be processed in Australian-style offshore centres. It was reported in June that Patel had held talks with Denmark over the potential for sharing a processing centre in Africa.

Why was it introduced?

The Conservatives have long been committed to reducing net migration to the UK and pledged in their 2010 manifesto to “take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”. As part of that, the party promised to set an annual limit on the number of non-EU economic migrants who could come to the UK.

Despite this, non-EU net migration to the UK has been steadily increasing since 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics, and last year reached “some of the highest levels seen since International Passenger Survey records began for this group in 1975”.

The number of people seeking asylum in the UK has also been increasing, with many taking dangerous routes to make it to this country. In the first half of this year, a record 6,000 migrants made the perilous journey across the Channel in small boats, making it look likely that last year’s full-year figure of 8,417 would be surpassed by the end of summer. Indeed, by early September more than 12,500 people were reported to have made the crossing.

When she introduced the bill, Patel said that existing rules on how the UK should deal with people seeking asylum were “broken” and that the bill, if introduced, would “break the business model of people-smuggling gangs” while creating a “firm but fair” asylum system that would enable the UK to “take full control of its borders”.

Does it have UK-wide support?

So far the bill has been supported by all Conservative MPs as well as representatives of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and independents from Yorkshire and Wales.

The SNP, along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are opposed to the bill, as are Alba MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey and Rutherglen and Hamilton West independent Margaret Ferrier.

The bill was last debated by a Commons General Committee that included SNP members Stuart McDonald and Anne McLaughlin on 21 October. 

Why has the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns about the bill? 

The professional body for Scottish solicitors has raised concerns that, as it stands, the bill is problematic because it insists that anyone seeking asylum must come to the UK directly from the country in which their life or freedom was threatened.

According to the Law Society this could encourage more people to take “unsafe and perilous journeys,” which in turn is problematic because while current rules make it a criminal offence to help an asylum seeker “for gain”, the proposed bill removes the for-gain element.

The Law Society said this could negatively impact on lifesaving organisations such as the RNLI, which are obliged under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to save all lives at sea.

“No one should face a risk of committing an offence for rightly attempting to save people’s lives and yet this would be one of the consequences of retaining the bill in its current form,” said Stuart McWilliams, convener of the Law Society’s immigration and asylum policy committee.

Read the most recent article written by Margaret Taylor - In Context: Miners’ Strike Pardons Bill

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