On Tuesday 22 March MPs in the House of Commons reinstated controversial proposals under the Nationality and Borders Bill – dubbed the ‘Anti Refugee Bill’ by campaigners. As opposed to the EU the UK has continued to restrict access to visas and family reunification for Ukrainian refugees – new scheme to outsource responsibility to the public has been met with severe critique.

The controversial Nationality and Borders Bill brought forward by hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel has faced strong headwind and criticism including recently by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, for undermining the 1951 Refugee Convention. After the bill was rejected by the Welsh and Scottish parliaments in February the House of Lords rejected the offshoring of asylum procedures and key clauses of the bill including the notorious clause 11 aimed at criminalising spontaneous asylum seekers arriving through irregular routes, and clause 9 enabling ministers to revoke British citizenship without notice. Further, the House of Lords added to the bill the right to work for asylum seekers after six months if a decision on their application was still pending – a move that has significant public support. Almost 200,000 people signed a petition in favour of granting the right and a recent poll showed 81 per cent public support.

Through the legislative process the bill has been met with widespread critique. Prior to the vote in the House of Commons public campaigning was initiated towards politicians and beyond the opposition a rebellion was brewing amongst Conservative MPs calling the bill “clearly ridiculous” and addressing a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning it breaches international law. However, the House of Commons voted against key-amendments from the House of Lords reinstating the offshoring of asylum procedures, the criminalisation of spontaneous asylum seekers, the right of ministers to revoke citizenships and rejected the right for asylum seekers to work. “It’s shameful that the government has rejected these moderate, sensible changes, which would have removed some of the cruellest elements of the Nationality and Borders Bill,” stated Sophie McCann, UK advocacy officer for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) adding: “In its current form, the bill will enshrine the UK as one of the most anti-refugee countries in the world, at a time when the devastating impact of war and conflict is absolutely evident”. ECRE member the Refugee Council stated that the government seeks to “criminalise those who have no choice but to make their own way to the UK without a visa. It’s a cruel and heartless move that is dramatically turning our back on the commitment made over seven decades ago when the UK was one of the founding signatories of the Refugee Convention”. Further, the House of Commons rejected amendments to increase access to family reunification for children put forward by Labour politician and former MP, Alf Dubs. This despite a majority of the population in favor of an expansion of access to family reunification for all refugees.

The approach to Ukrainian refugees, who according to Amnesty International will also face “draconian” measures under the borders bill, has been far from welcoming by the UK government. Home Secretary, Patel has insisted security checks are needed to prevent Russian spies from infiltrating the UK, calling it “naive” to assume that the risk is lower simply because the majority of Ukrainians arriving are women and children. As opposed to the EU, UK has restricted access for Ukrainians to people with relatives and valid visas and as of 14 March the UK had granted just 4,000 visas to Ukrainian refugees. Further, the initial restriction of access for relatives of Ukrainians with temporary visas or working in the UK from family reunification has caused intense debate.

Responding to critique the government has unveiled a new visa scheme called ‘Homes for Ukraine’. The scheme allows anyone in the UK. with at least six months’ leave to remain to sponsor a Ukrainian citizen or resident. The scheme is offering hosts $455 per month and 43,800 sponsors registered within the first five hours after the announcement on 14 March. However, the scheme effectively outsourcing the refugee protection to the public has been met with severe critique. According to charities despite more than 150,000 people signing up to host, due to the confusion of how to match them with refugees the result will be just a “trickle”. While praising the publics will to assist, Robina Qureshi, director of the refugee homelessness charity Positive Action in Housing denounced the governments strategy, stating: “this is a gimmick – just another distraction from the fact that the UK is still the only country in Europe that hasn’t lifted visa restrictions and there are still no safe routes here for Ukrainian war refugees”.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.