Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill: a ‘punitive’ or ‘courageous’ asylum plan?

Ministers claim they’ve been driven to action by ‘an upsurge’ of asylum seekers. In fact, current UK numbers are relatively low

French rescue teams help a group of migrants in Calais
French rescue teams help a group of migrants in Calais who were rescued while attempting to reach England by crossing the Channel on an inflatable boat
(Image credit: BERNARD BARRON/AFP via Getty Images)

Priti Patel is pushing ahead with plans for the UK to send refugees abroad for processing under new legislation similar to laws passed in Denmark earlier this month, sources claim.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will pave the way for Britain to create an offshore immigration processing centre for asylum seekers “for the first time”, says The Times.

According to the newspaper, the Home Secretary will introduce the bill to the Commons next week. And her ministers and officials have “discussed their proposals with their counterparts in Denmark”, who are believed to be “planning to send asylum seekers to a centre in Rwanda”.

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A “government source” reportedly claimed that representatives from Denmark and the UK had talked about a “potential” plan to “share a processing centre” abroad, as well as how to handle negotiations with third countries.

Pressure is growing on the home secretary to take drastic action, with a “furious” Boris Johnson demanding answers about the “growing number of Channel crossings facilitated by people-smugglers”, the Daily Mail reports.

The prime minister has allegedly “blasted” Patel for her “mismanagement” as the total tally of asylum seekers who have survived perilous boat journeys from France to the UK reaches more than 5,000 so far this year, including at least 1,000 in June alone.

A source told The Times earlier this month that Johnson had asked a minister: “What the fuck is the Home Office doing? When is [Patel] going to sort this out?’”

But while Patel is reportedly set to respond by steaming ahead with the offshore processing plan, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has said that Labour will oppose the “unconscionable” proposals and vote against the bill.

“This is yet more evidence of the lack of compassion and competence at the Home Office under Conservative ministers,” he said.

“These plans are unconscionable - and an attempt to create a smokescreen to distract from the fact ministers have failed to reopen safe and legal routes, failed to reach an effective agreement with France to deal with criminal gangs, and failed to introduce effective border measures to stop the Delta [Covid] variant getting a foothold in this country.”

The UN Refugee Agency has also criticised the offshore process plan as a “burden-shifting rather than responsibility-sharing” measure.

“The international refugee support system is predicated on cooperation and without that it basically breaks down,” agency spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “But the UK, it seems, is reportedly planning to offshore its asylum support to a much less well-resourced African country.”

The Home Office yesterday “denied that it has any plans to work in partnership with Denmark on an offshore hub”, reports Metro, and “insists any plan will safeguard people from harm and meet international responsibilities”.

All the same, plans to process refugees offshore or abroad are “a perennial suggestion of home secretaries going back decades”, says The Independent, “and has also repeatedly been discussed at an EU level in various forms without agreement”.

Indeed, the Home Office is said to have previously “examined Australia’s asylum system”, under which “all asylum seekers who arrive by sea” are sent to offshore centres in neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea, says Al Jazeera.

“European migration hawks have long eyed Australia’s approach - because it worked,” adds Politico. Although the country’s zero-tolerance immigration system has been “decried” by human rights advocates, supporters note that Australia “has had next to no illegal sea arrivals since 2013”, the news site continues.

But Patel may struggle to emulate that success, even if the Nationality and Borders Bill is passed. The Times reported in March that Gibraltar had rejected proposals for asylum seekers to be sent from the UK to the British Overseas territory for processing.

The Isle of Man, a Crown dependency, was also “discussed by officials” as a potential option, according to the paper, and “other islands off the British coast, possibly in Scotland”, were “in the mix” too.

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