Asylum seekers, refugees and migrant justice organisations united in St Peter’s Square to demonstrate against the government’s controversial Nationality and Borders Bill.
Campaigners and members of the public wearing orange hearts in support of refugees held banners saying ‘Solidarity Knows No Borders’ and ‘Manchester City of Sanctuary’, while speakers, sharing their first-hand experience of trying to stay in the UK after fleeing their homes, called on GM MPs and the public to oppose the ‘anti refugee’ bill.
“We wanted to do this demo to show love, to show that Greater Manchester has always been a place of sanctuary,” Jonathan, an expert by experience of the UK asylum system, said. “Solidarity has no borders.”
The bill contains many hard-line measures designed to make it more difficult for asylum seekers to make their claims in Britain.
Two key, and controversial, parts of the bill are its provisions for ‘inadmissibility’ and ‘differential treatment’. If someone arrives in a way that’s not through a government-sanctioned route or resettlement scheme the Home Office will try to deem their claim ‘inadmissible’ and not consider it. If the asylum seeker has travelled through a third country the government will have six months to try to return them to that country.
If they aren’t able to return that person, the government will consider their asylum claim but even if successful their refugee status will be classed as ‘differential’, meaning they’re given a shorter-term status, with more difficult routes to long-term settlement, without access to benefits, and without a right to refugee family reunion.
‘Any route you take you’re welcome’
Campaigners and speakers at the demo explained that the bill’s passing, and the change in how some refugees are treated, will mean that how someone arrived in the UK would determine their rights and benefits.
“There’s no way to claim asylum from outside the UK. You have to be in the UK,” Rivka Shaw, policy officer at GM Immigration Aid Unit which helped organise the demo, told the Meteor.
This means many need a visa to claim asylum in the UK but there are very few ways for people to get their hands on visas, Shaw explained. “The government says people should claim asylum safely and legally, but there are very few and very limited refugee settlement schemes. There’s one for people from Afghanistan and another for Ukrainians. But they’re not actually refugee resettlement schemes, they’re visa schemes.
The vast majority of people fleeing from all sorts of conflicts or persecution can’t get visas and so can’t claim asylum in Britain. “There just isn’t a way for them to get here safely,” Shaw says.
Many asylum seekers therefore come to the UK by plane with a fake passport or by boat. The government says this has led to an “unacceptable” number of asylum seekers arriving “irregularly” in the UK. Priti Patel says the bill will “fix the broken asylum system”.
But people with first-hand experience of the asylum system present at the demo indicated this would break international law. Jason Thomas, an expert by experience, and member of Manchester Refugee and Asylum Seeker, said:
“The most important thing to focus on in this bill is the migrant boat sourcing, those who seek asylum through the ‘worst legal routes’, as the government says. This needs to be explained. What is a legal route? If you’re a refugee, under the 1951 Refugee Convention — to which the UK is a signatory — any route you take you’re welcome to seek asylum in any country.”
Jonathan, another expert by experience, agreed this was unacceptable, saying: “No country should close the borders to people seeking sanctuary. No country should keep people distanced because they made their journey to the UK by boat or by plane. There’s no way that should happen.”
Another proposed measure in the bill is to allow the government to move asylum seekers out of the UK to another country while their asylum claim or appeal is pending. So far the UK government has failed to find any countries willing to do this, with Albania becoming the latest to say that it won’t process UK asylum seekers.
The House of Commons passed the bill in December last year. It then suffered a humiliating defeat in the House of Lords which removed some of the more controversial provisions like clause 11 which would have allowed refugees to be divided into two classes based on how they arrived in the UK. The Commons voted to restore the bill, a move branded ‘shameful’ by international charity Médecins Sans Frontières. The legislation will now return to the Lords.
‘Britain’s been built on being multiethnic, multiracial’
The bill will give the home secretary the personal power to revoke a person’s British citizenship without notifying them if they believe it was in the interests of national security, diplomacy or “otherwise in the public interest”.
Jason said giving the home secretary such “unconstitutional power”, given her department’s track record of ruining the lives of Brits from ethnic minorities backgrounds, would mean many UK citizens living in fear.
“There are over six million UK citizens, Asian people and people of colour, who have been working here for more than 20 years,” he said. “At any time, any infraction you make, whether it’s a traffic accident or something like that, the Home Office under this bill will have unconstitutional powers to rip away your passport and citizenship you earnt having paid your taxes and giving back to this country and making yourself of use.
“The legislation in this bill gives the Home Secretary more unconstitutional powers to take away their passport – and secretly. This is wrong. For hundreds of years, Britain’s been built on being multiethnic, multiracial.”
‘Greater Manchester is supporting refugees’
Despite facing a bleak situation, many at the demo were able to celebrate the way GM had supported asylum seekers. Jonathan said:
“On the 11th March we met the ten GM council leaders as well as the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. They put out this statement in reaction to the war in Ukraine. And this statement also addresses the anti-refugee bill, and how it treats people differently depending on the journey they make.
“It calls on the immigration minister to bring in a fairer, more effective immigration system that does not unfairly penalise those seeking sanctuary because of the journey they make. An urgent review of the Nationality and Borders Bill is required.
“So our mayor and our council leaders stand in solidarity with us. Greater Manchester is supporting refugees. It’s been a place of welcome and it’s going to be a place of welcome. And the local authorities and the mayor across the ten councils are supporting us.”
Campaigners went further than the GM statement, saying the bill should be abandoned altogether. “The Bill should be scrapped,” Shaw told the Meteor.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “For over two decades the public have been crying out for the broken asylum system to be reformed and that’s what this Government is delivering through our New Plan for Immigration.
“The UK has a proud track record of helping those who need our protection – but we must act to stop the dangerous, illegal and unnecessary small boat crossings of the Channel, control our borders, and return those with no right to be in our country.
“The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill will make it a criminal offence to knowingly arrive in the UK illegally and will introduce life sentences for those who facilitate illegal entry into the UK.”
This story is part of the Creating Radical Change series.
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Feature image: Andy Barton.