The Government’s New Plan for Immigration, as set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill, wants to deter people from making Channel crossings and support women and children – but will it do so?

The controversial Nationality and Borders Bill is currently being debated by the Lords having passed through the House of Commons by 298 votes (230 MPs voted against the Bill).

It was discussed in the Lords in the same week that it was revealed that people arriving in the UK via small boats across the Channel had reached record levels, with 28,431 people attempting the dangerous journey. In November, 31 people died in the Channel after their dinghy overturned.  

The Home Secretary has spoken about wanting to make Channel crossings an “unviable” route into the UK, arguing that deterrents such as the tiered system will prevent people making dangerous journeys and “break the business model” of people trafficking gangs who profit from smuggling people across the Channel and into the UK.

Priti Patel has also claimed that the Government’s New Plan for Immigration would do more to protect vulnerable women and children – citing how the majority of people crossing the Channel are adolescent and adult men. 

However, experts, NGOs and even the Home Office’s own equality impact assessment into the policy has cast doubt on how effective the Nationality and Border Bill and the New Plan for Immigration will be in achieving these stated goals. 


Catch-22

Central to the New Plan for Immigration is the aim of stopping people from making dangerous journeys across the Channel, before claiming asylum once they have arrived in the UK. 

To achieve this, the Home Office has written new policies into the bill designed to deter people from attempting to enter the UK in this way. Those people who arrive in the UK via a so-called “illegal” route may only be offered temporary immigration status with restricted rights to family reunification and limited financial support. 

But, even a brief glance into the history of deterrent policies when it comes to irregular routes into the UK shows that the thinking behind the policy may be flawed. 

Dr Peter Walsh of the Migration Observatory has been monitoring Channel crossings. He told Byline Times that there has been a shift away from people arriving into the UK by smuggling onto lorries and towards making the dangerous boat crossings. This is in part, he said, due to the policies that made lorry crossing unviable. 

In order to clampdown on lorry crossings, both the French and UK Governments have put in multiple security measures on the border. Now, lorry crossings are less common – but the number of small boat crossings has dramatically increased from around 300 in 2018 to nearly 30,000 in 2021.

“An important part of the story of the rise of the small boats route is that, because the lorry route has become increasingly unviable, people seeking asylum who are often quite desperate have been willing to pay those who can innovate other methods, and that small boat route has become entrenched as the principle method,” Dr Walsh said.  

“Attempts to increase enforcement have actually diverted the problem elsewhere. And it has compelled people to take a route that arguably is more dangerous than the one that was previously in the ascendant.” 

Lorry crossings are, of course, dangerous too – as evidenced by the horrific deaths of 39 Vietnamese people in 2019.

The concern that a policy of deterrence risks pushing people people towards more dangerous routes is reflected in the Home Office’s own equality impact assessment of its New Plan for Immigration. The assessment admits that the decision to “increase security and deterrence” could encourage people to “attempt riskier means of entering the UK”.

“The two-tier system aims to deter small boat arrivals,” Dr Walsh told Byline Times. “There’s not much evidence that policies like that are effective in deterring irregular entry because, when we speak to asylum seekers, the decision to choose to come to the UK is not strongly motivated by a knowledge of policy.”

Instead, when a person decides to leave their home country and seek asylum, greater pull factors are a shared language and family already living in the country that they hope to travel to. For this reason, people seeking asylum in the UK are more likely to have English as a first or second language and to have family or community already settled here. 

History also plays its role. Britain’s imperial past means that there are stronger connections with Commonwealth or formerly colonised countries. Similarly, those fleeing persecution, war and conflict in former Francophone countries are more likely to see asylum in France. 

There’s a perception too, Dr Walsh said, “that the UK is tolerant, democratic and safer”.


Women and Children First?

In her speech introducing the New Plan for Immigration, Priti Patel raised the issues that the majority of people arriving via Channel crossings are young adult men, asking: “Where are the vulnerable women and children that this system should exist to protect?”

However, the proposal to create a tiered asylum system which restricts rights on family reunification should a person enter via an irregular route could lead to fewer women and children being granted asylum in the UK. Indeed, up to 60% of women and children currently accepted as refugees face being turned away under the new policy. 

Currently, young men are more likely to make the risky journey to the UK and claim asylum, before their family joins them via the family reunification policy. If the latter is restricted when a man arrives in the UK on a small boat, women and children will be left behind. 

“It’s quite common for men to make these risky journeys,” Dr Walsh told Byline Times. “So if you look at asylum claims more broadly, a big majority come from that demographic. Once you take family reunification into account, the gender balance is closer to 50:50.

“The bill is saying the majority of people who come here are young men, and we’re going to prevent them from availing themselves of family reunion, which will have the effect of skewing considerably further towards men in the breakdown of those who are given protection in the UK.”   

Experts in children’s welfare and immigration have also expressed concern that plans in the bill to use “scientific methods” to assess the ages of people seeking asylum will cause harm to children and fail to provide them with the support they need. Suggested methods include x-rays, MRI and CT. 

“We know through working with unaccompanied young people that age disputes are a deeply stressful experience, only adding to the trauma they have already gone through in having to flee their home country and on their harrowing journey to safety,” Marieke Widmann, policy and practice advisor at The Children’s Society, told Byline Times.

The British Association for Social Workers agreed, with a spokesperson saying: “A young person in such circumstances may have severe negative experiences when it comes to doctors, they may have experienced physical or sexual assault, or simply do not understand what is being done to them.”

Both organisations shared concerns about the evidence that scientific methods are even accurate, with Widmann saying that “the use of methods like dental x-rays, bone age and genital examinations are highly contested, inaccurate and will not offer the clarity promised, and can be harmful to the child.”

“What’s even more alarming is the Government’s proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill set out that, if a child doesn’t consent to these medical procedures, this decision can be held against them, effectively taking away their choice,” Widmann said. “Age disputes have serious safeguarding repercussions for children. While they wait for an age dispute decision, they may be locked out of the systems and services in place to protect, care and support children, putting them at incredible risk. 

“We are deeply concerned that if a young person does not consent to these examinations, the Home Office will view the credibility of their asylum claim as being damaged,” said a spokesperson for the British Association for Social Workers. “Delays in the system are one of the most pressing issues facing children seeking asylum. So-called scientific methods are a distraction from the real issues in the system such as delays, access to specialist support, and resources for local authorities to support children in their care.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Nationality and Borders Bill will deliver the Government’s New Plan for Immigration – the most comprehensive reform in decades, to fix the broken asylum system. It will reduce the pull factors in the UK and clampdown on those who abuse the system and have no right to be in the country. In addition, we are establishing a new Scientific Advisory Committee to advise on scientific methods to assess age, supporting social workers to make more accurate decisions – thereby reducing the serious safeguarding risks of adults wrongly being placed in the children’s care system, and asylum seeking children being wrongly treated as adults.”

The Home Office also confirmed that refusal without good reason to consent to a scientific method only relates to the assessment of a person’s age, for example, it will be taken into consideration as to whether they are treated as a child or adult – it doesn’t discredit their wider asylum claim.

This article was updated on 14 January at 5pm to include a statement from the Home Office

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