The Nationality and Borders Bill has passed in the House of Commons, where none of the amendments proposed to safeguard human rights were adopted. A three-year government review of the right to work for asylum seekers has concluded that the work ban policy should be maintained. In light of guidance cautioning against charging small boat drivers as smugglers, lawyers are challenging prosecutions before the UK appeal court. Four months after its announcement, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) has not yet begun. At the same time the eligibility criteria for another scheme assisting former employees of the British government in Afghanistan have been severely reduced.

The lower house of the UK’s parliament, the House of Commons, has passed the Nationality and Borders Bill at a third reading by 298 votes to 231. The “Anti-Refugee Bill” as it has been dubbed by campaigners seeks to penalise refugees for entering the UK in an irregular manner via so-called safe countries. “That has no basis in law. The 1951 Refugee Convention […] does not allow for the differential treatment of refugees on the basis of how they arrived,” says Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative to the UK. More than 80 pages of amendments to the bill were tabled: these sought to reject third-country asylum processing, scrap a 1,012 GBP fee for child citizenship applications, ban pushbacks in the Channel, and block government powers to strip citizenship. All were rejected at the final vote. One rejected amendment, put forward by MP Neil Coyle, would have enabled would-be Channel crossers to seek “humanitarian visas” in France. This approach would “save lives, help us meet our international obligations and prevent money going to smugglers” Coyle said, adding that the government’s plans as they stood would fuel “more dangerous routes and more risk to people seeking to reach the UK”. The bill must now pass the upper house, the House of Lords, before becoming law.

The government has announced that “no further changes” will be made to the existing work ban policy for asylum seekers, concluding a long-awaited review period. This was a disappointing result for NGOs, who argue that allowing people to work legally would promote refugee integration and prevent exploitation. Tim Naor Hilton, head of ECRE member Refugee Action, said: “After three years of this review the Home Office nor its Ministers have been able to cobble together even the flimsiest piece of evidence that backs up this awful and nonsensical policy. This ban creates misery for people who are often stuck for years in our asylum system and who could be integrating and contributing to their communities”. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) corroborates this view, saying there is “clear evidence” of the “harm” the employment ban causes, and “little evidence” that of any significant benefits. The expert body is calling on the Home Office to review the ban. A coalition of civil society groups behind the Lift the Ban campaign said this year that allowing asylum seekers to work would result in a 180.8 million GBP annual windfall for the UK economy. Indeed, in light of a shortage of 100,000 personnel in the social care sector, the MAC has suggested asylum seekers should be made eligible for visas to work in care homes. Vincent, a volunteer with the Lift the Ban campaign in Glasgow, said: “I want to work, I want to contribute but I am not allowed”. The Home Office insists the ban must be maintained in order to “reduce pull factors to the UK”.

A legal challenge has been mounted against attempts to imprison people for steering small boats carrying asylum seekers across the Channel. Earlier this year, the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance emphasising that both passengers and pilots of such boats are potentially vulnerable asylum seekers who should not be prosecuted. The guidance reads: “Recognising migrants and asylum seekers often have no choice in how they travel and face exploitation by organised crime groups, prosecutors are… asked to consider the… public interest factors in charging those merely entering illegally… Passengers of boats and other vehicles should not be prosecuted unless they are repeat offenders or have previously been deported.” Nonetheless, the government has succeeded in prosecuting 67 “boat-drivers” on smuggling grounds since the start of 2020. The UK appeals court heard several of these cases on 14 December, but is yet to give final rulings.

The much-publicised Home Office scheme to resettle Afghans has yet to get off the ground, fuelling fears for thousands of people left at the mercy of the Taliban. The scheme was announced in August – more than 100 days ago – but is “not yet open” according to the government site. Sources quoted by The Guardian say that the delay is due to a lack of political will to provide “appropriate resources”. Enver Solomon, head of ECRE member organisation the Refugee Council, has urged for fast-tracking of the programme to provide desperate Afghans with a means of reaching asylum in the UK legally. Another government relocation scheme, the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) was established to assist people who worked for the UK government. The scheme has only helped 84 former employees of the UK government, despite receiving more than 90,000 applications from people in need, and the criteria for accessing the scheme were severely narrowed on 14 December. The revelations regarding these two schemes come after a whistleblower revealed that only 5 per cent of the 75,000 – 150,000 people who appealed for UK evacuation from Afghanistan in August received assistance.

The UK has sent more than 100 asylum seekers back to Afghanistan and Iraq over the last five years after taking them in as unaccompanied children. These young people were given temporary leave to remain in the UK but were returned once they “aged out” – turned 18. The charity that released the figures, Refugee Education UK, suggests some of those returned face danger and threats to their lives. One boy who arrived in the UK as a child but was later returned said he had been forced to join the Taliban. According to the Home Office, the 138 children had either committed crimes or did not have a right to stay in the UK. Furthermore, returns to Afghanistan have been suspended since July.

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Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

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