“I love every thing about Belfast”
Young people fleeing persecution face many challenges.
They uproot their entire life, through necessity more than choice, and often travel long distances in treacherous circumstances.
Then they arrive somewhere strange. Language, culture, and the absence of family and friends all can be difficulties for anyone looking for a new start somewhere safe.
But the other side of being a refugee or an asylum seeker is hope. At the end of a tough journey is the chance to build a life somewhere new.
And so it is with MB, a young person who arrived in Northern Ireland 18 months ago as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. In other words, they are a child who arrived here alone.
MB – named this way to protect their identity - received help from the Children’s Law Centre with their asylum application. And, since they got the opportunity to live in Belfast, things seem to be going well.
So well, in fact, that last night a letter written by MB was read by Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl at Belfast City Council’s October full session.
“I love every thing about Belfast. The city is beautiful, clean, well designed and safe. What I like most Belfast is the people they all are friendly and sociable.
“I don’t think Belfast is missing something significant. Guys you put too much effort on this city to look like is today. To me Belfast is flawless city.”
This is great news, it is a success, and it is part of a process that, while imperfect, still allows this sort of thing to happen.
However, the UK’s rules on asylum might be about to change.
Nationality and Borders Bill
The Nationality and Borders Bill is currently passing through Westminster. It proposes some fundamental changes to how the UK responds to asylum seekers.
Its provisions include more powers for the Home Secretary to establish asylum camps to house refugees, and would also allow for some asylum seekers to be moved oversees while their applications are processed.
Both of these measures controversial. The camp system has been branded inhumane – with critics citing the case of “squalid” Napier Barracks in Kent, a discontinued army base, where people are housed tight together in old dorm rooms and which saw a huge Covid-19 outbreak last year.
At the same time, suggestions that asylum seekers could be shipped overseas have been called both callous and unworkable. Home Secretary Priti Patel, the chief architect of this bill, suggested just this week that Albania is an option for people asking for asylum in the UK. Other mooted destinations include disused ferries, abandoned oil rigs, and Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.
The core of the bill is the creation of a two-tier asylum system that differentiates between people (both children and adults) based on their method of arrival into the UK.
In short, people arriving via official routes (such as booking a plane ticket and then declaring themselves as asylum seekers on arrival) will have stronger protections and more rights than people who have arrived into the UK by hidden or unofficial routes (this will include migrant boats crossing the channel, as well as human-trafficking victims perhaps smuggled in on lorries).
The bill suggests all sorts of other changes or expansions in Home Office powers. For children and young people in particular, the task to determine the age of an arrival (and, thus, whether they are put on the adult or child pathway) will move from social services onto a newly-created National Age Assessment Board (NAAB) – which critics say will change the focus of this service from protecting children to controlling immigration.
In general, organisations ranging from rights campaigners (both international and domestic) to legal experts have raised doubts that these new measures are compatible with existing laws, in particular the UK’s duty to protect people who need asylum, and to have structures in place to allow such protections to be feasibly accessed.
Children’s Law Centre
After MB’s letter was read out at the Belfast City Council session, Maria McCloskey, Immigration Solicitor at the Children’s Law Centre, said: “The Children’s Law Centre represents the vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in this jurisdiction. We witness the impact of the trauma these children have endured and the vulnerable position they are in, with 40% of our clients recognised as potential victims of trafficking. To see how settled one of those young people has now become, and how positive they are about their new home in Belfast, is heart-warming.
“However, we can’t hide from the fact that if the Nationality and Borders Bill was in place, 96% of the asylum claims made by the separated or unaccompanied asylum-seeking children we represent, would have been considered inadmissible. This means they would not have been entitled to the full protection of the Refugee convention of 1951. The government would, first, have tried to remove them to another country.
“Had they been unable to remove them, they would have granted them short term permission to remain, without access to any benefits or help with housing, leaving them potentially homeless and destitute in the future.
“The Bill also criminalises people who are legally seeking asylum. Refugees are not criminals just because they seek asylum. We are talking about people like you and I who have lost their home through war, fear or persecution and have nowhere to turn. Children, alone, trying to reunite with far off family members, or in the grips of modern slavery.
“This letter shows the reality of who we, as legal practitioners, support in our work. It is an example of the difference we can make by ensuring safe arrival, quick action and the opportunity to live a life without fear. An example of what will be lost if the worst reaches of the Nationality and Borders Bill are not curtailed.”
The Children’s Law Centre is far from alone in its concerns about the new Westminster Bill, and the effect this will have should it pass through the commons and become law.
People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll MLA tabled a question to the First and deputy First Minister on this issue that was answered last month. Mr Carroll asked the minister for their assessment of Westminster’s new plan for immigration, and how it would impact on NI.
“Our officials have had regular engagement with the NISMP [Northern Ireland Strategic Migration Partnership], the Home Office, other jurisdictions and local stakeholders on the New Plan for Immigration. Whilst we view certain aspects of the New Plan for Immigration as positive such as the strengthening of the resettlement programmes, the potential diminution of the rights of, and protections for, genuine asylum seekers fleeing persecution but arriving outside of an agreed resettlement scheme is of concern.”
Stormont is likely to have little sway on this matter. In fact, legal challenges in the courts will probably represent the best opposition to such a bill, given the size of the Tory majority.
In general, though, this is a matter for everyone. What do we, collectively, want to do to help people who arrive here in desperation? How easy or hard do we want to make asylum?
Right now, it already is a lengthy and complicated process. If the Nationality and Borders Bill passes, those complications are set to increase.
People – who, like MB, could be a child arriving in a new country, all on their own – will leave behind all manner of horrors and heartbreak. They will travel a long way, often in ongoing danger. When they arrive here, they will face an iron bureaucracy that is geared towards weeding out any possible misuse of the system at the expense of its core function: providing help to those who need it. The Home Office bill should be scrapped.
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