From the Together with Refugees protest in London. From the Together with Refugees protest in London. Photo: Peter Bird / Counterfire

Hundreds protested against the latest assault on the rights of refugees on Wednesday. Peter Bird was there

A large crowd from Together With Refugees, a coalition of refugee support agencies, other anti-racists and refugees themselves, congregated in Parliament Square on Wednesday, the day of the second reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill.

The bill seeks to make changes to the UK immigration system and aims at those refugees who do not arrive in the UK directly from a country of persecution. The Government will try to remove them from the country. Its provisions include:

  • Refugees will be subject to a possible four-year prison sentence for ‘entering illegally’
  • If refugees are granted asylum, and therefore recognised as in need of protection after fleeing war, persecution, and tyranny, it will be in the form of ‘temporary protection’
  • They will be given a lesser period of leave to live in the UK, which will be regularly ‘renewed’ and they will be at risk of being removed from the country each time their leave is reconsidered;
  • The bill also seeks to criminalise people saving the lives of those who get into danger crossing the Channel.

The proposals are incompatible with the UK’s international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that the status of an asylum claim should not be dependent on the mode of entry into a country.

A succession of speakers on Wednesday related highly distressing accounts of how they were unsafe and many of them persecuted, in the countries they fled from. They described imprisonment and abuse. Others described being incarcerated in detention centres in Britain on arrival, and many spoke of the torment of waiting inordinate lengths of time for their status in Britain to be determined. Poverty, war, and deprivation caused by climate change were also mentioned as reasons why life became untenable in the countries they fled from.

A recurring theme expressed by those that spoke in Parliament Square is that they want to build a new life in Britain, in freedom and safety, and they wanted to work, apply the skills and talents they have, and to contribute. While they were saying all this, the bill was passed in parliament by 366 votes to 265, although it has some way to go before becoming law.

Sarha, who arrived in Britain recently from Afghanistan, told the audience “I wish no one was forced to leave their homes because of war. War shows how anyone could be a refugee.”

Many of the refugee support groups point out that the people this proposed law aims at already feel desperate enough to risk their lives travelling by precarious means, such as in small boats across the channel, and they are unlikely to be deterred.

The government’s attempt to justify the legislation, by saying it prevents people smuggling, has been rightly criticised by the Labour peer Lord Dubs who points out that the way to do that is to create safe passage for refugees.

Speakers called the bill the most brutal, oppressive and unjust immigration law any British government has ever produced. Fortunately, refugees and immigrants are not alone in their fight. Actions such as the recent one in Glasgow, where a working-class community occupied the streets for eight hours and successfully stopped the deportation of two Indian Sikhs who had been deemed over-stayers provide an example of the kind of resistance that is possible. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute has said that it will continue to save the life of anyone who is in danger at sea, in spite of the possibility that the legislation, if enacted, will make them liable for prosecution.

Socialists and anti-racists must stand together with those that fight for life, sanctuary and equality.

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