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On July 6, 2021, the Nationality and Borders Bill (the bill) was introduced in the UK Parliament with the aim of amending the current asylum and immigration system in the United Kingdom. The Home SecretaryPriti Patelintroduced the bill so that the UK can “take full control of its borders” and prevent the asylum system from being abused.

The bill is currently (at the time of writing) at the report stage, which gives MPs an opportunity, on the floor of the House, to consider further amendments, or proposals for change, to the bill which has already been examined in committee.

If enacted, the bill will make fundamental amendments to the asylum and immigration system, delivering the most comprehensive reform in decades to amend the current asylum system.

Nationality and Borders Bill overview

The UK government website outlines that the bill – and the wider plan – has 3 key objectives:

  • To make the system fairer and more effective so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum
  • To deter illegal entry into the UK breaking the business model of criminal trafficking networks and saving lives
  • To remove from the UK those with no right to be here

Measures proposed in the bill include introducing a maximum life sentence for those convicted of people smuggling, coming up with new assessments to identify adult migrants pretending to be children, creating a downgraded status for asylum seekers who have not been deported to a safe country, and giving the Border Force new powers to stop and divert vessels suspected of carrying illegal migrants.

However, the bill has raised concerns from various quarters, including professional immigration practitioners. It has also attracted recent criticism from top police officers, who say it will make it harder to prosecute human traffickers.

Concerns about impact on modern slavery victims

Cross-party MPs, including two former Tory leaders, and the country’s leading prosecutor in trafficking cases, have also criticised the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently going through parliament, saying it will “water down” vital protections for modern slavery victims.

The bill includes a number of changes to modern slavery support, which the home secretary says will prevent people from being able to “frustrate immigration action” by disclosing late in the process that they have suffered abuse.

It would mean any victim who has been sentenced to prison for more than 12 months anywhere in the world would be disqualified from modern slavery support in the UK, and that survivors would be given a defined period to disclose the abuse they have suffered.

Timing is vital for modern slavery victims

Senior police officers have warned that it can often take a considerable amount of time for trafficking survivors to disclose their exploitation, meaning reducing the time they are given could hinder prosecutions.

Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association who led Operation Imperial – a major investigation into modern slavery offences in the UK between 2013 and 16 – said giving victims time to disclose exploitation was crucial.

“This bill introduces time limits which could be disadvantageous to people who take a long time to reconcile their position. Their disclosure can be the first step towards getting evidence from them. Without that there won’t be any judicial processes.”

Caroline Haughey QC, a leading barrister who is the UK’s foremost trafficking prosecutor and helped draft the country’s modern slavery laws, said the bill would “destroy” much of the legislation designed to protect victims, describing it as “horrendous”.

“This is taking a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and subsequently destroying 10 years of work that led to the Modern Slavery Act and led to us being the best in the world. They are crushing the system to punish the minority rather than save the majority.”

“It’s based on a presumption that everyone who uses the system is lying. They’re conflating immigration offending, migration issues, with modern slavery. There doesn’t appear to be a real understanding of the victim typology in trafficking cases.”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservatives and co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), has proposed some amendments to the bill, warning that in its current form it risks “undoing” the Modern Slavery Act and will lead to “vital intelligence” on trafficking cases being “lost”.

“The risk is that they’ll get fewer convictions and there will be fewer people making modern slavery disclosures, and more people continuing to work in this ghastly subculture of abuse.”

The Tory MP said the Home Office was “over-egging” the issue of people falsely claiming to be modern slavery victims to evade deportation, accusing ministers of wrongly branding it a “crisis”.

Removal of British citizenship

In a further criticism of the bill, The Guardian newspaper claims that individuals could be stripped of their British citizenship without warning under a proposed rule change quietly added to the nationality and borders bill.

Clause 9 – “Notice of decision to deprive a person of citizenship” – of the bill, which was updated earlier this month, exempts the government from having to give notice if it is not “reasonably practicable” to do so, or in the interests of national security, diplomatic relations or otherwise in the public interest.

Critics say removing citizenship, as in the case of Shamima Begum, who fled Britain as a schoolgirl to join Islamic State in Syria, is already a contentious power, and scrapping the requirement for notice would make the home secretary’s powers even more draconian.

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