Don Flynn on the iniquities of the Government’s new Borders Bill

Among migrant rights activist circles a great deal of focus is now being placed on the question of borders and their role in structuring the worst of the oppressive features of modern society.

Advocates of this take on government policies have been helped in making their case by the phenomenon which is being referred to as ‘bordering’ and also the emphasis in the most recent proposals for new legislative measures which ramp up the idea that frontiers can be made more-or-less impermeable.

On the latter, Home Secretary Priti Patel has offered raw meat to those she sees as making up her political base in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill now going through Parliament. The need for yet more legislation to the eight immigration acts passed since 1999 points to the critical instability of border control regimes in a country like the UK, which projects the fact that it is simultaneously open to for global business whilst at the same time retaining the capacity to impose limits on the movement of people across its frontiers.

There is a tension here: business activity demands that people and populations are in a state of constant movement; the political class would find it much more convenient if people stayed where they are so they can be counted and controlled. The inability to settle this dilemma has meant a constant return to the fundamentals to see if this time they can finally get the matter right.

At this point in time, the offence which figures highest in the Home Office’s eyes is the clandestine entry of people seeking asylum on the small boat route across the Channel. The numbers are rising, as Maël Gallison has reported (Chartist 211, July-August). This is happening because the countries which refugees see as places of safe haven have been slamming the doors for much of the last 20 years. But far from the total exclusion of refugees, this has led to the emergence of a sizeable population of displaced people drifting through countries where they are cold-shouldered by authorities unwilling to accept responsibility for their settlement. This means that the hope of finding a home hinges on the refugees’ own initiative and whatever services are on offer from people-smuggling gangs operating outside the law.

Junking eligibility

The Nationality and Borders Bill aims to reduce this hope even further. In the past, asylum seekers have been buoyed by interpretations of international refugee law which say that the clandestine crossing of a national border should not invalidate a claim for protection from persecution which is found to be justified on the facts of the case. Patel’s bill aims to junk this principle almost entirely.

It will introduce a set of eligibility rules which will confine the grant of refugee status only to those people who have been brought into the country under the terms of one of the UK’s approved refugee resettlement programmes. Arriving outside these schemes will mean claims will not be considered by the authorities, even if the person considered still bears the visible marks of torture and ill-treatment. The intention of the government is that individuals in these categories will be sent back to either the country of their nationality or any third country through which they are assumed to have travelled.

To say this is unsatisfactory is an understatement. Refugee resettlement programmes – which do have an important place in any comprehensive international system of protection – entail long, bureaucratic processes on people suffering immense hardship in camps which are also places of political violence and persecution. They are also administered in accordance with the whim of governments which feel they have the right to reduce or even suspend quotas altogether if it seems politically expedient. The UK’s schemes have exhibited many of the worst features of these resettlement schemes.

Unsurprisingly, migrant and refugee support organisations have pledged themselves to oppose the bill and are currently organising campaigns which brief parliamentarians on all the reasons why the planned measures run counter to the fundamentals of human rights protection.

Beyond the rituals of parliamentary lobbying, a politics of borders is hardening on the left of the migrant rights movement which is represented in publications such as Leah Cowan’s Border Nation – A Story of Migration. Cowan argues that borders need to be seen in a wider context, having a role in state practices and institutions that “uphold laws and protect the status quo of inequality”. If this is the case, then the appalling Nationality and Borders Bill needs to be fought against by social movements that include, and go beyond, the heroic band of migrant and refugee rights defenders.

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