08 December 2021, The Tablet

The Nationality and Borders Bill and the politics of dehumanisation

How the Nationality and Borders Bill will take unjust punishment to a new level.

The Nationality and Borders Bill and the politics of dehumanisation

A suspected victim of human trafficking is shown in this file photo.
CNS photo/Jackson Njehia, Reuters

The Nationality and Borders Bill contains provisions to deny protection to victims of modern slavery if they have been sentenced to 12 months or more in prison. It also makes it a lot easier to deny asylum to people who have been convicted of a crime. This approach assumes that, if someone has committed a crime, they simply do not matter. It represents a deeply dehumanising politics, in which migrants are linked to criminality, and doubly demonised for this.

This legislation will in practice deny protection to many individuals who ought not to be criminalised at all. First, victims of modern slavery very often have criminal convictions directly arising from their exploitation, and already they regularly end up penalised for this. At JRS UK, we have frequently work with trafficking victims who have been forced to work in cannabis production, and then convicted for this. We encounter them in immigration detention where, having served their sentences, they are being indefinitely incarcerated awaiting deportation. In some cases, they have been kept in detention because of their criminal convictions for cannabis production. The failings of the criminal justice system are revisited upon them in an immigration context. Victims who ought to receive protection and redress receive punishment not once, but twice over.

The Nationality and Borders Bill will take this to a new level. Second, under the hostile environment, many daily activities like working and driving are transformed into criminal offences if performed by people without immigration status. It is easy for someone with precarious immigration status to end up on the wrong side of the law. Compounding this, the Nationality and Borders Bill includes new criminal penalties for people arriving in the UK without documents – a move which will place both people seeking asylum and victims of trafficking at risk of prosecution. Both are increasingly trapped by a law that actively strives to criminalise them. Once they are criminalised, the new Bill will deny them the protection they need. 

This speaks to the dishonesty of the narrative around “foreign criminals”. The government boasts about a tough approach to foreign ex-offenders on the grounds that it is defending the public. In fact, it is increasingly defining criminality so that it encompasses a range of people with insecure immigration status. These people are disproportionately likely to be vulnerable. The denial of protection to people who ought not to face criminal charges at all is an urgent moral concern. But it is not the only one here. 

To suggest that a victim of modern slavery, or a refugee, should be denied protection simply because they have committed a crime is cruel and unjust. It is obviously antithetical to any concern with rehabilitative justice and rejects any notion of forgiveness or mercy, and this should be of key concern to the Church, as well as to all people of good will. It does something even beyond that, it suggests that, in committing a crime, someone becomes undeserving of any compassion or care, or of even being treated as human. 

This happens against the backdrop of a wider racist approach to ex-offenders. The government uses the language of “foreign national offenders” to refer to all ex-offenders without British passports. This language is dehumanising in general, and specifically obscures the routine deportation of ex-offenders who, though not having formally documented British citizenship, have spent most or all of their lives in Britain.

People subjected to this practice are disproportionately Black, Asian, or minority ethnic. In his second report on the welfare of vulnerable people in immigration detention, published in July 2018, Stephen Shaw found that “a significant proportion of those deemed Foreign National Offenders had grown up in the UK…had been to UK schools, and all of their close family and friends were based in the UK. Many had no command of the language of the country to which they were to be ‘returned’, or any remaining family ties there.” He recommended that  “The Home Office should no longer routinely seek to remove those who were born in the UK or have been brought up here from an early age.” The government rejected this recommendation. A criminal conviction has become an automatic justification for playing hardball on immigration, and personal circumstance and lived reality are deemed irrelevant. The human cost is high.

Consider someone who has been trafficked to the UK for exploitation. They have been used, abused, and deeply traumatised. Eventually, they manage to escape their traffickers. They are still very vulnerable and in danger. They also have few options for supporting themselves, and ultimately do so through crime. It is grotesque and inhuman that they should be denied protection. This is to deny not only mercy, but also justice.


This is the fifth in a series of five articles on the Nationality and Borders Bill by Sophie Cartwright. Read the rest here:


1. An introduction to the Nationality and Borders Bill.

2. The Nationality and Borders Bill will make life in the asylum system much bleaker.

3. The Nationality and Borders Bill treats hostility as a virtue.

4. How the Nationality and Borders Bill plays into the hands of traffickers.

What do you think?


You can post as a subscriber user ...

User comments (0)

  Loading ...