On the 12th of May The Immigration Act 2016 received royal assent and introduced a number of reforms in a deliberate attempt to create what the government calls a “hostile environment” for immigrants, including asylum seekers.
The act includes provisions to treat those awaiting asylum decisions as criminals, putting them on ‘immigration bail’ in a move Jon Featonby, Parliamentary Manager for the Refugee Council, describes as inappropriate, unacceptable and distasteful.
Featonby fears that the proposed plans raise safeguarding issues. Those with dependents who are denied asylum will be allowed 90 days from refusal to leave the country, after that accommodation and any financial support will be removed. Amidst fears for their safety should they return to their country, it is likely that these plans will mean asylum seeking “families will be left homeless and destitute”.
The new legislation also plans to abandon unaccompanied children as soon as they’re 18, despite the government being very vocal on the importance of providing support for those leaving care after their 18th birthdays. This is due to them often having faced many traumas in their short lives and the complex challenges they continue to face. Unaccompanied children who have left their homes, fled war and lost their families are arguably even more vulnerable and face the same if not even more complex challenges than the care leavers the government has been so vocal about supporting. Yet, many of those unaccompanied children who sought asylum are the very people that The Immigration Act ensures will be excluded from support once they leave care.
The Tory government promotes a ‘deport now, appeal later’ approach for what is an incredibly complex area of the law. So complicated, is immigration law that the Home Office regularly struggles itself; with a Parliamentary Ombudsman report determining the Home Office had yet again “failed to address delays and poor decision making in the immigration system”. Legal aid has been all but dissipated, court fees are set to skyrocket and now the appeal process is being removed. This forces people to rely on Judicial Review, along with decisions to be appealed from outside of the UK; an area of reform that suggests the government has had its common sense glands completely removed. The appeal process for decisions to refuse or discontinue asylum support has also been removed in what the government has admitted is a move to force people into destitution and out of the country.
If this doesn’t target and alienate people enough; the act also includes a new criminal offence of ‘driving whilst not legally a resident’. Further, landlords will now be able to evict those who “have no right to rent” and will also face new criminal charges of renting to someone who they “ know or have reasonable grounds to believe” has no legal right to reside in the UK. This offence will carry a maximum sentence of 5 years, to put that in context; the starting point for sentencing in rape cases is 5 years. As well as being unfair to landlords and unfair to those who wish to appeal, it’s unfair to the asylum and homelessness charities that will no doubt clean up the mess created by the government. Further, the new legislation incites racism. Landlords are busy people, checking immigration status is complicated and time consuming. Critics warn the new law encourages landlords to discriminate against potential tenants based on their accent or colour of their skin. Congratulations Cameron, you’ve created a “valuable tool for racist landlords” (Maurice Mcleod, Writers of Colour).
Ok, so far, so bizarre. Despite being condemned by immigration lawyers, refugee and asylum organisations, human rights campaigners and anyone with a conscience, the Immigration Bill became the Immigration Act. That being the case, let’s look for any faint glimmers of hope to lift us from the dank ‘inform on and persecute’ vibe the Immigration Act has so far. The act includes a new limit of 72 hours on the term of detention for pregnant women (which can be extended by ministerial approval). Not much of a victory but a slight toe tap in the direction of no detention at all for pregnant women.
Previous to the Immigration Act, immigrants could be arrested and detained with no judicial oversight. A decision was made to deprive a person of their liberty, a fundamental human right, and no judge or legal professional assessed that decision; it was for the detainee to challenge it. Now, for the first time, there is legislation that requires a judicial bail hearing for those who have been detained for 4 months, if they haven’t already applied for bail themselves. There’s still no presumption of innocence (as entrenched in law) and a long four months detention before a bail hearing, an especially long deprivation of freedom if you haven’t actually committed a crime. The disturbing reality is that those who will be detained for 4 months and don’t apply for bail themselves, are likely to have failed to make an application because they have complex needs such as mental health issues, in which case detaining them is even more unconscionable.
The Immigration Act is a hateful piece of law, which encourages persecution and discrimination, whilst making painfully slow progress towards protecting the human rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. It seems the government is using the legislation as a show of strength to impress the idea of tough action on immigrants to those voters wavering towards UKIP, whilst throwing in a couple of slight victories for refugee and asylum campaigners in an effort to not come off entirely heartless.