"The government must make the Nationality and Borders Bill more humane"
Last updated 25 April 2023
Amid an outpouring of public support for Ukrainian refugees, British Red Cross chief executive, Mike Adamson, asks the UK government to find safer ways for refugees to enter the country - wherever in the world they've come from.
In the past few weeks, the British public’s views on how refugees should be treated have been broadcast loud and clear through generous donations, kind deeds and passionate words. As millions of people flee cities like Kyiv and Mariupol, we seem to be united in a shared understanding of what we, too, would want and need if we were in their shoes.
The recent commitment to an ambitious community sponsorship scheme is welcome, but we cannot escape the fact that the system has been slow to mobilise and the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill, to be voted on in within weeks, overshadow all this positive energy.
The speed, scale, proximity and horror of the crisis in Ukraine have caught our attention, but we know that wherever you are in the world, the line between peace and conflict is delicately thin.
Today it's Ukraine, before that, Afghanistan and Syria. Every day our teams help people from many other countries around the world with exactly the same needs for principled humanitarian support - even if their stories aren't hitting the headlines at the exact moment they need it.
In all the talk of sponsorship schemes and visa programmes, what people need can be explained by a set of very simple principles. As a member of the world’s largest humanitarian network, they are crystal clear and non-negotiable.
Firstly, safe routes to protection: in other words a way to escape conflict and find somewhere safe and secure to stay. This gives people the best chance of settling, healing and carrying on with their lives whether they are later able to return to their country of origin or not.
Secondly, family reunion: the ability for people to be with their relatives for comfort, love and support, no matter whether that family is two parents with two young children or a mixture of grandparents, adult siblings, uncles and aunts.
The right support: things such as money, clothes, food, appropriate housing, healthcare and schools for children, and “wrap-around” psychological and social support, such as counselling or English lessons.
Thirdly, to be treated fairly: no matter what someone’s experience has been so far or how complicated or traumatic their journey to safety, everyone deserves the right to a fair hearing, and to be treated according to their needs, rather than judged on the basis of luck or whether they qualify for a specific scheme.
This moment of crisis for Ukraine coincides with a moment of decision for the UK parliament as it prepares to vote on the Nationality and Borders Bill, a piece of legislation that will dictate how people in need of asylum are treated in the UK for years to come. We think it’s the government’s opportunity to bring these principles to life, but, more than that, to use them to measure success.
The alternative is unacceptable to us. Today we're seeing how complicated it is to seek safety in the UK, how wrong that feels and the lengths people will go to when a simple or safe route is not available.
It highlights the unfairness of a Bill which, at its heart, proposes to treat refugees differently based on good or bad luck and whether they happen to qualify for one of the tightly drawn schemes available.
To give one example, if this Bill becomes law in its current form, anyone fleeing conflict (and that would include people from Ukraine), who became desperate enough to enter the UK without the correct permission would automatically be given less support and opportunities to rebuild their life here. They would be deemed a “group 2” refugee with limited rights to basic support or to bring their family to join them. In effect, they’d be punished for not having been able to get on one of the government’s schemes.
As the Bill enters its final parliamentary stages, the government still has an opportunity to change course and create a more compassionate, fair and efficient asylum system. One that better reflects our society’s values and views on how we’d want to be treated if this were happening to us.
As we watch the horrific images of families having to leave their homes and see so clearly what a warm welcome should look like, let’s make sure the Nationality and Borders Bill puts that ambition and fairness into action for everyone who calls upon this country for support in their hour of need.
Chief executive of the British Red Cross
Mike Adamson has been chief executive of the British Red Cross since 2014.
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