4 March 2022
UK parliament is debating whether to pass new immigration legislation that will disproportionately affect women’s chances of getting asylum and protection in the UK.
The Nationality and Borders Bill was introduced to “increase the fairness of the system to better protect and support those in need of asylum”, however it came under fierce opposition because it would have given the government powers to revoke people’s British citizenship without notice, and punish anyone arriving in the UK illegally, such as by a small boat, with up to four years in jail.
The clause to criminalise refugees based on their method of arrival to the UK was voted down in the House of Lords last week, in what campaigners have described as a “victory for compassion”. The bill is set to have its third and final reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday 8th of March, before it goes back to the House of Commons for ministers to either accept or challenge the changes made to the bill.
Women will be particularly affected by the bill, with the grassroots group Women Against Rape (WAR), calling the legislation “an attack on women”. Their briefing, based on decades of work with hundreds of asylum seekers, reports that over 70% of women asylum seekers have fled rape and other forms of torture. Victims of rape, domestic violence and trafficking often delay reporting because of trauma and fear or stigma and discrimination, explains WAR. If the new legislation passes, they will be fast tracked for deportation with their claim dismissed as “unsubstantiated.”
“We see first-hand that the Home Office sets out to disbelieve women and undermine their cases, ignoring the long-term trauma caused by rape and domestic violence,” says Emily Burnham, from WAR. “Under this bill there will be more barriers to obtaining the evidence victims need, more detention and few appeal rights. It is a terrifying prospect. Of the few women in our network who have been deported, all have been re-traumatised and suffered rape or other abuse in their home country. The government must know this and must know that it is deliberately putting women’s lives at risk.”
“This bill will make it almost impossible for women who are fleeing for their lives to win asylum in the UK,” adds Gloria Peters from the All African Women’s Group (AAWG). “This bill will make women less safe. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, like many women in high places, doesn’t speak for us.”
The bill allows the government to send asylum seekers to a “safe third country”, and to process refugees offshore. Migrants allowed to claim asylum will receive “temporary protection status”, which will last up to 30 months, instead of the usual refugee protections. The temporary status does not include an automatic right to permanent residence, nor does it allow refugees to be reunited with their family in the UK. It will provide no recourse to public funds – which means no entitlement to most welfare benefits. The United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned that the bill undermines the 1951 Refugee Convention, an international human rights agreement signed by the UK that provides protection to those forced to flee their home countries to escape persecution and serious harm. If the bill is implemented, the UNHCR says that the lives and well-being of vulnerable people will be put at risk.
It will also enshrine in law some of the UK’s deliberate policies of destitution for asylum seekers. A study by AAWG found that all women asylum seekers who participated in the survey were living in poverty, with 60% of them living on less than £70 (US $95) a week for a single person, officially making them destitute. Half of the participants had no income at all.
“This bill will make that worse,” says Peters. “Even if we manage to overcome all the obstacles that are put in our way and get the right to stay, we will only be given temporary status with no right to family reunion or benefits. Without the right to family reunion, mums and children will suffer the unbearable pain of indefinite separation.”
“We’ve escaped for our lives from war, starvation and environmental collapse” she adds. “We have a right to be here. Our work has created the UK’s wealth through centuries of slavery and colonialism.”