Voices: We can defeat the government’s anti-refugee bill – Boris Johnson is more fragile than his bluster suggests

Boris Johnson seems determined to renege on Britain’s humanitarian commitments to torture survivors and other refugees, in ways that could have cascading consequences for years to come. That immoral carelessness, which we can expect to be on display in parliament this week, is bad for Britain and bad for the world.

An authoritative legal opinion describes the Nationality and Borders Bill, which comes back to the House of Commons on Tuesday (7 December), as the worst assault on international refugee law that this country has seen. The UN refugee agency says the bill would “undermine the principles on which the refugee system is founded”.

The government denies it all. It claims, without bothering with even a pretence of evidence, that the plans are “fully in accord with our international obligations”. More often than not, such inventions go unchallenged. It is as though we have been collectively browbeaten into accepting inhumane policies as inevitable. That silence may, however, finally be coming to an end.

The tragedies in the Channel in recent weeks – hopes and lives cut short, in moments of unthinkable horror – should have been a wake-up call for the government on its refusal to provide safe routes to flee repression and reach the UK. The government seems eager, however, to deny its obvious shared responsibility for the death of 24-year-old Mariam Nuri, desperate to join her fiancé in the UK, as well as the 26 others who lost their lives at the same time. Boris Johnson is determined to double down, even though the government’s own analysis suggests a political crackdown makes dangerous journeys more likely, not less.

The government praises the importance of the Refugee Convention, created in response to the deadly failures of the 1930s and partly shaped by the UK itself. And yet, the anti-refugee bill seeks to turn back the clock by introducing a two-tier system which would divide into opposing categories the tiny number who somehow succeed in obtaining papers which allow them to reach the UK directly and the great majority who, after fleeing repression or torture, have no alternative but to take long and dangerous journeys in order to reach Britain’s shores.

Those people would now be criminalised because they are the “wrong sort” of refugee and risk being sent back to persecution – even though those who arrived in that way in the past have been honoured by everybody from Priti Patel to the Queen for their contributions to society, large and small.

The Nationality and Borders Bill is just one element in the government’s wholesale assault on rights, now in full swing. Justice secretary Dominic Raab loves to emphasise the importance of rule of law, while in the same breath proclaiming his determination to “overhaul” (in other words, weaken) the Human Rights Act, which brings key protections for all. The judicial review bill, now going through parliament, will make it harder to challenge government actions, and seeks to throw out safeguards for refugees. Meanwhile, the new policing bill seeks to restrict the right to protest, in ways that would once have seemed unthinkable. And so it goes on.

All of which suggests an unstoppable rollback of rights. But polling shows a clear majority want basic rights to be upheld, including sanctuary for those who need it. We have already seen in other contexts that this government, despite its 80-seat majority and proud lack of humanity, may not be as impregnable as it likes to make us believe.

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Last year, the government tried to push through impunity for British troops, with a “presumption against prosecution” after just five years for torture and other war crimes committed abroad. As with the anti-refugee bill, the government insisted the Overseas Operations Bill was in compliance with international obligations, repeatedly telling critics that they should “just read the bill”. That tactic eventually backfired, when more people did indeed read the bill, and realised how misleading was the government’s description of its own plans. Senior generals, decorated veterans and a former head of Nato joined with torture survivors and others to insist that the impunity provisions be struck down. Following a 180-strong defeat in the House of Lords, the government backed down in one memorable afternoon.

That victory against impunity, remarkable though it was, does not need to stand in isolation. In response to the anti-refugee bill and the false and noxious narratives which drive it forward, hundreds of groups large and small have come together to ensure a more humane approach under the banner of #TogetherWithRefugees. Former immigration ministers Caroline Nokes and Damian Green have both spoken out, calling for an approach that is compassionate and fair.

So far, the government is digging in deeper, continuing to praise the Refugee Convention even as it seeks to tear it up. But, as the unexpected collapse of the torture impunity proposals showed, this prime minister is more fragile than his bluster sometimes suggests. This government relies on popular indifference, in order to get its way. Humane commitment is what it most fears.

Steve Crawshaw is policy and advocacy director at Freedom from Torture


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