The controversial nationality and borders bill “ripped apart for a second time by the House of Lords” as the government faced defeats in 12 out of 13 votes on proposals. After rejections by Albania and Ghana the UK government now claims it is close to an agreement with Rwanda to outsource asylum processing. Amid renewed critique of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the Minister for Refugees promises to speed up visa processing. More than 20 NGOs are urging the government to open safe and legal pathways for vulnerable Afghans at risk.

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 but on 4 April the House of Lords rejected key-elements of the bill for the second time. Supporting proposals on compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the House of Lords challenged the two-tier system introduced under the bill criminalising spontaneous asylum seekers arriving irregularly. Further, votes included allowing asylum seekers to work if their case is not resolved within six months, requirements of formal return agreements with third countries to ensure safe returns, allowing unaccompanied child asylum seekers in Europe to join a family member legally in the UK, and demanding extra safeguards over a measure allowing authorities to strip people of their British citizenship without warning. The only vote in favour of government proposals was the requirement of the best interests of a child to be a “primary consideration” in decisions on minors. ECRE member the Refugee Council stated: “Today, the House of Lords has taken a strong stand for humanity and compassion, voting to treat refugees equally regardless of how they get here and to make a commitment to the resettlement of refugees”. The Nationality and Borders Bill will now return to the House of Commons.

The government is seeking progress on another controversial element of the bill already rejected by the House of Lords in March – the outsourcing of the asylum processing with centres in third countries. After attempts to reach agreements with Ghana and Albania falling through and a long history of failed attempts from the UK and other countries to implement such policies, the government claims it is close to a deal with Rwanda. Reportedly, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is eager to make a formal announcement but the nationality and borders bill has not yet gained royal assent and an agreement on terms with Rwanda has not been reached. “He wanted to go ahead with it but it’s just not ready,” a government source said, noting: “It’s close but there are still a lot of things in the balance”. Rwanda has rejected similar agreements with Israel and attempts from Denmark have so far been fruitless. UK Minister for Refugees, Richard Harrington criticised the initiative, stating: “I am having difficulty enough getting them from Ukraine – there’s no possibility of sending them to Rwanda”.

Harrington has promised to ensure the processing of visas within two days and to bring in 15,000 Ukrainian refugees a week under the Homes for Ukraine scheme that has been heavily criticised over red-tape and delays. While, more than 200,000 people have signed up offering to host Ukrainian refugees under the scheme launched on 14 March, as of 1 April just 4700 sponsorship visas had been issued. Further, reportedly only about one in ten of the people granted visas under the scheme or around 500 people had actually reached the UK. Beyond delays and red-tape the outsourcing of protection of Ukrainian refugees to the public comes with risks. In a joint letter 16 refugee and anti-trafficking organisations including ECRE members Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, points to the danger of the insufficient safe-guards in relation to the schemes match-making element. Head of safeguarding at Refugee Action, Louise Calvey stated: “We are concerned that issues with the scheme means that it risks being a Tinder for sex traffickers. We are already aware of people with illegal motives who are advertising on social media”.

More than 20 NGOs have sent a joint letter to Home Secretary, Priti Patel expressing: “grave concern over the lack of safe and legal routes available for vulnerable people still in Afghanistan to reach the UK”. The organisations: “commend the government in successfully bringing over 15,000 people to safety in the UK at such short notice”, during the initial evacuations from Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over and reiterates their support for the “Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), which aims to resettle up to 20,000 of the most vulnerable people at risk, with around 5,000 arrivals expected in the first year”. However, also notes with grave concern: “that as it currently stands, the ACRS offers little or no capacity for those most at risk in Afghanistan to come to the UK in a safe and secure manner” and fears the potential inclusion of people already evacuated to the UK in the 20,000 promised places meaning they would not all be new.

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