‘Overhaul Britain’s racist hostile environment,’ campaigners warn following Afghanistan crisis

Campaigners and MPs are urging the government to dismantle its “racist” hostile environment policy and scrap proposed laws which could affect Aghans fleeing persecution.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) has penned an open letter to home secretary Priti Patel, urging her to abandon the “resettlement-only” plans set out in the Nationality and Borders Bill, that would criminalise or deny full refugee status to those who make their own journeys to seek asylum in the UK.

Backed by over 90 signatories including Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), Hope Not Hate and the Institute of Race Relations, the move also calls upon the UK government to grant immediate asylum to Afghans already waiting for status in the UK.

Speaking to The Independent, Zoe Gardner, policy researcher at JCWI, said: “Many Afghans and others who have been wrongly refused end up undocumented and living under the hostile environment: a set of rules which deny people housing, healthcare and jobs when they can’t show the right paperwork. These checks entrench racial discrimination throughout our society, pushing Black and brown people without papers into destitution and exploitation.

“If government cared about equality and showing a compassionate response to people seeking sanctuary, it would abandon its anti-refugee bill and scrap the hostile environment – both promote discrimination and push vulnerable people into the hands of those willing to exploit them.”

Some 40 MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Claudia Webbe, have also written to Ms Patel, calling for adequate protection for Afghan nationals and amending parts of the bill.

“Reports confirm extrajudicial killings have already begun. Those in particular danger include woman and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTIQ+ people and journalists,” the letter reads.

“In light of this crisis we urge the government to drop its current inadmissibility rules and its decision to criminalise refugee journeys that are not undertaken through regulated resettlement routes.”

The Afghan Council of Great Britain suggested aspects of the Nationality Bill may be fuelled by racism against minoritised groups, echoing calls for the government to rectify this.

“We stand against the inhumane and uninformed provisions of the bill,” a spokesperson told The Independent.

“It is neither practical nor workable but surely immoral. It could be the product of politicians dancing to the tunes of far right extremist groups influencing our nation’s policies and laws based on pure racism and hatred towards those who seek refuge in our great nation.

“Or perhaps some politicians may suffer from Islamophobia and discriminate against refugees based on their religion or their belonging to a Muslim country like Afghanistan even if they are not Muslims.”

The British government’s Nationality Bill may be fuelled by racism against minoritised groups, some campaigners fear. (PA)

The UK government has rejected more than 32,000 Afghan asylum seekers since the Western invasion of the country in 2001. During this time, the charity Detention Action has supported many individuals who have been placed into detention.

Bella Sankey, the charity’s director, told The Independent: “The Nationality and Borders Bill would scrap what remains of our threadbare asylum system, slamming the door in the face of Afghan refugees who flee the Taliban and arrive in the UK without prior government permission.

“It is a cynical piece of legislation that aims to complete the work that the hostile environment started, making the UK an unpleasant place to be for people of colour and those that don’t look or sound ‘British’.”

A spokesperson from the Coalition of Race Equality Organisations (CORE) said: “Our members work with marginalised communities all over the country and the hostile environment on immigration has a disproportionately high negative impact on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities whether they are British or not.

“This crisis in Afghanistan, which Britain has been heavily involved in, is an opportunity for us to show that we are a wealthy welcoming nation. We hope the Government does what is right for the people of Afghanistan and for all those seeking refuge in the UK.”

The government argues the Nationality Bill, which is set for its third reading in the Commons this autumn, will provide further flexibility to waive residency requirements to help members of the Windrush generation and others acquire British citizenship more quickly.

This will also mean that children unfairly denied British overseas territory citizenship can finally acquire citizenship here, which was one of the anomalies that emerged from the Windrush scandal.

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Euen Herbert-Small, a Windrush campaigner, told The Independent: “The bill carries quintessential changes to long standing discriminations in British nationality law.

“On the other hand, the other part of the bill carries with it very harmful changes to asylum protections for those fleeing persecution.

“The deteriorating condition in Afghanistan is timely in demonstrating to the British government that is must not pass divisive legislation that seeks to abandon its obligations under international conventions.”

When approached for comment, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been clear that the UK Government will always stand by those fleeing persecution or oppression in their hour of need.

“As part of our New Plan for Immigration, we are establishing safe and legal routes to enable the most vulnerable people to start a new life in safety in the UK. Just this week the Prime Minister announced the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme which in its first year will help up to 5,000 Afghans make a new life in the UK, with an ambition for up to 20,000 in the longer term.

“People should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach and not risk their lives making dangerous and unnecessary journeys across the Channel. We want to deter people from placing themselves in the hands of evil people smuggling gangs and become trafficked. It is the right thing to do to focus on creating these safe resettlement routes.