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The Immigration Act 2016 - What's next for migrants' rights?

Written by Alina Müller, Migrants' Rights Network, 16 May 2016

As the government prepares to roll out new immigration enforcement measures under the Immigration Act 2016 Migrants' Rights Network (MRN) renews its call for a joint action plan to defend the rights of all migrants.

We never expected to win the battle against the Immigration Bill. In fact, we expected to lose it sooner.

In November last year, MRN brought together activists, campaigners and NGOs to discuss joint strategies for defending the rights of migrants in preparation for the impact of a new Immigration Act.

Energy and determination

Though many of the participants then shared our pessimism, the energy and determination to fight the government's plans to 'crack down' on migrants by further reinforcing a 'hostile environment', was palpable.

In the six months of parliamentary debate that followed this energy was manifested in the tireless work of civil society organisations and campaigners to provide MPs and peers with evidence that the immigration control strategy and measures that were being proposed were unjust, unfit for purpose and detrimental for the rights and welfare of migrants and communities across the country.

As a result of this work, the Immigration Act 2016 will bring some positive changes to immigration legislation. Among them are the introduction of judicial oversight for immigration detention and a 72-hour time limit on the detention of pregnant women (extendable to a maximum of one week with ministerial approval) as well as a government pledge to provide sanctuary in the UK for unaccompanied refugee children stranded in Europe.

During the parliamentary debates we also saw a new immigration narrative take root. To provide context for the bill, the government has been using the story of migrants as criminals and abusers of our welfare system that have to be punished and removed in the interest of protecting the prosperity of the UK. As peers and MPs from opposition parties argued against the punitive measures in the Bill, migrants and asylum seekers were instead spoken of as people that contribute to their communities but are often unfairly and brutally treated by public institutions and immigration enforcement bodies.

As the government prepares to roll out the new measures over the coming months, how can we build on these positive developments?

What's next?

Campaigners and activists for migrants' rights and human rights are gearing up to monitor the impact of the Act in their specific area of expertise such as detention, discrimination in the housing market and asylum rights. Given the huge scope of the Act, MRN believes that to be able to paint a comprehensive picture of its impact, campaigners and activists will also have to develop strategies for coordinating the monitoring activity. Finding ways of networking and collaborating across issues and geographical areas will be crucial to be able to both generate evidence and to finding ways of using it effectively to influence policy and public opinion.

Engaging the British public

Despite sustained opposition in the commons and the lords, the government has remained confident that the measures contained in the Act are the right thing to do to manage immigration. This confidence is derived in great part from the fact that it believes that it has the support of the public. Lord Keen of Elie, speaking on behalf of the government in the debate, made this clear when he indicated that it was time to move on: "We must now make sure that we deliver what the British public voted for last May and pass this Bill into law."

Indeed, the general strategy for immigration control in the new Act is the direct outcome of the government's election manifesto pledge on immigration.

While this might give one reason to believe that the public supports efforts to manage immigration, it doesn't necessarily prove that that the British public would support a piece of legislation that sets out to deliberately harm some of the most vulnerable people in our society. The public's reactions to calls for the government to give sanctuary to unaccompanied asylum seeking children is only the latest indication that the public's view on immigration, and therefore what they voted for last May, might be more complex.

To build on the engagement that was generated in the last weeks of the parliamentary debate we must sustain the discussion about the rights of migrants and refugees by bringing to the fore real-life evidence of the damaging effects of this new law.

Increase our understanding of irregular migrants

To a large extent this Immigration Act is designed to target irregular migrants. The government is determined to use every possible means to find and remove all irregular migrants currently living in the UK, according to recent estimates around 600,000 people.

While irregular migrants are central to this legislation, they seem to be largely absent from both the parliamentary and the public debate. In fact, most people know very little about this group of migrants, the conditions they find themselves in, how they got there, as well as the role they play in our social and economic structures. The consequence of this is that the government's story of migrants as criminals and burden on our public services has dominated the discussion and shaped public opinion.

We have to generate material that can challenge this. The diverse experiences and viewpoints of irregular migrants should provide the starting point for this work.

As civil society organisations have made clear many times, this Immigration Act is another step in the wrong direction not only in terms of securing rights for migrants and fostering social cohesion but also in terms of building a fair and effective immigration system.

MRN will continue to develop a framework in which organisations, campaigners and activists can work together not only to challenge current immigration policy but also to promote an alternative approach. It is one that places at its centre human rights and dignity for all people, regardless of immigration status.

About the author: Alina Müller is the Policy Officer at Migrants' Rights Network. She has a background as a researcher and project coordinator in the fields of migration and development, and holds an MA in Conflict, Security and Development from King's College London.
This blog post originally appeared on the Migrants' Rights Network blog and is reproduced with our thanks to Migrants' Rights Network.

Any views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EIN