‘With Literally Nothing’
The Nationality and Borders Bill, lauded by Priti Patel as an end to ‘open borders and uncontrolled immigration’, has its second reading in the House of Lords tomorrow. A Home Office factsheet explains that the measure is going to ‘differentiate’ between refugees. Instead of acknowledging that people desperate enough to flee persecution often ignore barriers – a fact that has structured rules about sanctuary for centuries – it proposes to distinguish between asylum claimants ‘according to whether they arrived by safe and legal routes’. Unauthorised entry into the UK will be punishable by four years’ imprisonment. The maximum sentence for helping irregular claimants will rise from fourteen years to life. According to the home secretary, ‘the British people have had enough … of economic migrants pretending to be genuine refugees.’
In recent evidence before a House of Lords Committee, Patel tried to characterise the bill as a humanitarian reform. Traumatised victims of war and human trafficking were losing out, she said, because too many asylum applicants were arriving from countries that were already safe. The 33,000 who reached the UK last year supposedly outnumbered those in all but three EU states, while 70 per cent of the people who came in small boats were single men whose claims were bogus. ‘They are not genuine asylum seekers. They are able to pay the smugglers … elbowing out women and children.’
When the Refugee Council challenged the 70 per cent figure, Patel failed to back it up, and a parliamentary research paper says the UK isn’t the fourth most popular asylum destination by comparison to EU states, but the fourteenth: a very middling position. The home secretary’s expressed concern for women and children was also unconvincing. The Nationality and Borders Bill potentially criminalises vulnerable migrants, and it doesn’t carefully target profiteers. To facilitate convictions, it will abolish an existing provision requiring prosecutors to prove that alleged people-smugglers acted ‘for gain’.
That isn’t all that’s dubious about the home secretary’s position. In her maiden speech to parliament in 2010, she said her parents had come to England ‘with literally nothing’ before saving enough to buy their first corner shop. The claim was an exaggeration, and it has been embroidered ever since. According to a profile in the Daily Mail at the start of the Brexit campaign, Patel’s family was expelled from Uganda in 1972, ‘penniless and homeless’. Another puff-piece in the Mail, celebrating her appointment as home secretary, claimed ‘they were expelled by the murderous dictator Idi Amin in the Seventies and had all their possessions seized.’
In fact, by the time Amin told Ugandan Asians to get out within ninety days or ‘find themselves sitting on fire’, Priti Patel’s parents were long gone. Her father had been in England since 1965, having emigrated as a teenager with his own father, and he married her mother (who was from a well-to-do Ugandan family) in 1970. Priti was born in north-east London in March 1972, five months before Amin issued his ultimatum. More than 28,000 refugees then fled to the UK (assisted by a sympathetic Home Office) but Priti Patel was already part of a well-settled immigrant household.
Patel isn’t the first politician to overstate her experiences of adversity, and her opinions, at least, are consistent. She’s been an ardent nationalist since working as a press officer for James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the mid 1990s, and politicised patriotism runs in the family: her father contested a council seat for Ukip in 2013. The dodgy backstory matters, however, because it illustrates how hard it is to differentiate between worthy and unworthy refugees. Just as Patel’s parents escaped Uganda to improve their lives, most migrants are compelled to leave their homelands for mixed reasons: hopes as well as fears, ambition as well as anxiety.
If borders are to be regulated effectively, the rules should honestly accommodate that simple truth, and they need to be agreed in collaboration with neighbouring states. The measure that first prioritised ‘genuine refugees’ over ‘economic migrants’ was an international treaty to manage demographic upheavals set off by the Second World War. There are at least 84 million displaced people in the world today. Unilateral efforts by a small nation to resist pressures of that magnitude don’t protect sovereignty; they guarantee instability.
The isolationists in charge of this country think otherwise. Almost two years ago, when a radio interviewer asked Patel if post-Brexit Britain would have found space for her mother and father, she became tetchy. Taking back control of the UK’s borders was ‘not about refugees and asylum and people being persecuted around the world’, she said. ‘We must differentiate between the two.’ At the time, the answer was just another hint that her parents had suffered grave persecution. Today, it reflects what’s deceitful about the new law. The Nationality and Borders Bill doesn’t meaningfully differentiate at all. Its purpose is simply to exclude.