Five reasons MPs must reject the Nationality and Borders Bill

This dangerous piece of legislation marks a new low for the UK government.


Photo – Mark McClure

This week MPs will debate and vote on the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The bill is one of the most authoritarian presented to the UK Parliament in recent memory. A number of human rights organisations have produced detailed critical briefings on the legislation. These include Detention Action, Liberty, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Migrant Voice and Amnesty International, and the British Red Cross (there are also a number of blogs on the website, Freedom of Movement). There are so many problems with this cruel and inhumane legislation that it is difficult to know ‘where to start’. But here are five of the most critical issues.

1. It allows the UK government to strip individuals of their citizenship without notice
The bill would allow the Home Secretary to remove the citizenship of UK nationals in secret. They would not even have to inform the individual concerned who would also be left without any right of appeal.

The power to remove the citizenship of UK nationals is itself a relatively recent authoritarian invention. Between 1948 and 2003 ‘deprivation of citizenship orders’ could only be used against UK nationals that acquired their citizenship by registration or naturalisation – and there were no such orders issued between 1973 and 2002.

The Blair government gave the state new powers to remove citizenship in 2002. In 2014, the Cameron government broadened this further by allowing them to be used even when it would make a UK citizen stateless (though this only applied to naturalised UK citizens who were considered a threat to national security and the Home Secretary still had to have ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe that they could be granted citizenship in another country).   

The new legislation removes the legal safeguards and conditions that exist on the use of these orders. It takes an already reactionary measure and allows it to be used in an entirely arbitrary way, clearly violating the rule of law system and the principles of natural justice.  

2. It criminalises asylum seekers and the family members of refugees  
The legislation criminalises asylum seekers seeking refugee protection in the UK. Clause 10 creates a distinction (which is illegal under international humanitarian law – see below) between asylum seekers who have arrived by regular ‘legal routes’ and those that have arrived through irregular routes. This targets the vulnerable people that have made the journey across the English Channel in small boats. Under the draft law the government would be permitted to discriminate towards those arriving via this, and other, illegal routes, a move that will affect not only those with a legal claim to refugee protection but also any family members trying to unite with them in the UK.

The government claims that it wants to ‘deter’ asylum seekers from using irregular routes. But this is dishonest. They know very well that there is currently no legal route available for this group of vulnerable people.

The UK has no visa allowing legal transit to the UK for those wishing to make a claim for refugee protection. As Amnesty International and Migrant Voice put it, “Since nobody is permitted to seek asylum in the UK unless getting here first, the rules – as they have long done – require people wishing to seek asylum in the UK (where they may have family, other connections or other reason to think this country will be safe for them) to make journeys that are not pre-authorised by the Home Office”.

3. It is unambiguously illegal under international human rights law
As a former imperial power, the UK does not have the history of support for human rights and democracy that the British elite tends to claim. Nonetheless, after World War 2, and the defeat of fascism, Britain did contribute to the development of international human rights law and institutions. Sadly, the Nationality and Borders Bill is a sign that the current government wants to embrace the worst aspects of our history – not our more progressive.

The proposals in the legislation are unambiguously illegal under international law. Treating asylum seekers differently depending on how they arrived in the country categorically breaches the UK’s obligations under the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. The measures in the proposed bill also conflict with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and also clearly breach the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

4. Offshore ‘Australia-style’ prison camps for refugees
The legislation marks a u-turn on the part of the UK government, which had previously been committed to decrease the use of immigration detention (following reviews in 2016 in 2018). Instead, it seeks to increase the use of prison-style camps for refugees, including a commitment to open Australia-like offshore detention and processing facilities in unspecified foreign countries. The UN High Commission for Refugees has described the UK’s take-up of the Australian model as “neo-colonial… You pass it off to… African countries and you wash your hands with it. You might pay a lot of money… but nonetheless to shift the burden in that way without the safeguards is a problem.”

In fact, the UK government proposals are ominously similar, in general, to the Australian approach. According to Detention Action, since 2013, 70% of asylum claimants processed offshore by the Australian authorities have been recognised as refugees entitled to protection under international law. But Australian law prohibits them from being granted this status due to how they arrived, i.e., through irregular routes, leaving them in limbo.    

5. But someone will benefit: private sector contractors
There is little appetite amongst countries in the Global South to become an external processing centre for UK-bound refugees. But if the government does find a willing partner there will be one big winner: the private sector firms handling these contracts.

Australia spends vast sums in its external processing, equivalent to £2.3m per refugee applicant every year. This massive amount of money could be spent on investing in the NHS or education. But instead will flow to the shareholders of private sector security companies.   

What can you do?
There are a number of positive amendments put forward by MPs addressing the problems of the bill – and some of these may well have a chance to pass when the legislation moves to the House of Lords. You can email your MP using Another Europe Is Possible’s electronic tool right now asking them to support the amendments and oppose this outrageously authoritarian legislation.