With the Nationality and Borders Bill just about making it through parliament this week and the recent announcement of a scheme to deport some migrants to Rwanda, Rachel Youngman argues that the Government's ill-thought-out plans for refugees put lives at risk.

Three years ago a young woman arrived in the UK. She had been trafficked and was alone and in deep trauma. No one knew quite where she came from, or how she entered the country. She was identified as a victim of trafficking from somewhere in west Africa after being found guilty of a petty criminal offence.

This woman had been mentally and physically damaged and, when she was examined by doctors, she was found to have suffered horrific internal injuries from being repeatedly raped. They had to operate, but during the procedure she went into cardiac arrest. She died alone in a UK hospital without any family or friends.

Having seen the impact of women who are trafficked through my role as chair of the board at Hibiscus, a charity that supports female refugees in the UK immigration system, I know that this is not an isolated case. Press reports of men making the crossing from France simply to take advantage of the system here are ill-informed. Men are also victims of trafficking.

So as the Ukrainian refugee crisis continues to dominate headlines, alongside the legalities of the UK government's latest plan to relocate those who attempt to enter Britain to Rwanda, it is essential we examine the real impact on those fleeing to our shores for safety. Britain was one of the first countries to ratify the Refugee Convention of 1951, which spelled out countries' obligations to protect fugitives from persecution who had arrived in their territories and not return them to danger.

But the most recent idea – to fly asylum-seekers arriving in Britain straight to Rwanda without listening to their claims – goes against all we have stood for in protecting the vulnerable and offering a safe haven to those in need. As part of the deal, Rwanda will be paid to receive the refugees and consider whether to grant them asylum there. There will be no opportunity to apply for asylum in Britain.

The Government partnership deal with Rwanda has brought into sharp focus how inequality breeds further inequality in our immigration system. Distinctions are often based on race, ethnicity and gender. We can't say human rights are for those who look a certain way or come from a particular ethnic group, but not for others. Once that starts, you move perilously close to some form of refugee apartheid.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2015 60 million people worldwide took flight from their homes. By 2020, that figure was 82 million. But it's worth bearing in mind that certainly within the 2015 figures, fewer than three per cent fled to Europe.

There is a narrative that the majority of refugees want to flee to the UK, but that simply isn't true.

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Those who find themselves in a UK immigration removal centre invariably talk of being a part of our society, having a job, working hard for their families – simply living a life without fear. Unfortunately the popular tabloid narrative combined with the system they find themselves caught up in doesn't support their hopes.

How we deal with refugees will set the distinction between a progressive modern society and one that says it's ok to widen inequality. The current system sets a course where the vulnerable become more so and are put at risk of serious harm.

We already know that war in Ukraine is fuelling the human trafficking crisis. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reports that people fleeing Ukraine are predominantly women, children and the elderly. This makes them vulnerable to trafficking. If you add in ethnicity, minority groups in countries are even more vulnerable, such as the Roma community of Ukraine, because they lack access to state social assistance programmes. Low-skilled labourers, as well as children in state-run orphanages, are targets for traffickers as well. They are vulnerable and powerless.

There is deeply embedded racism in the European migration policies when we see how EU countries react differently to the people who are trying to reach Europe, dependent on their race or religion. We should continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict irrespective of their nationality, race and ethnicity.

It is also important to talk about the new Nationality and Borders Bill and how it will impact those affected by modern slavery and human trafficking. The measures in this Bill will not protect victims of modern slavery, rather it will harm them.

Survivors of modern slavery could be denied access to the support that will enable them to access safety and recover and rebuild due to an unreasonable evidence burden. The Bill introduces 'trauma deadlines' by putting a time limit on when survivors must disclose their experiences, after which they are assumed to be lying and their credibility is damaged. The Bill would therefore block access to support and criminalise victims and survivors who have criminal records, despite 49 per cent of potential trafficking victims last year being forced to commit crimes.

The UK government talks about no alternatives to the Rwanda agreement, but that isn't true. There has long been a push for safe and legal routes to help stop people from profiting through boat crossings, and that was due to be part of the new Bill. The Government says the Bill is about stopping people from coming to the UK to seek asylum through 'irregular' routes. But we see with Ukraine what we saw with Afghanistan – the situation changes rapidly, and people fleeing violence to find safety have no choice but to pack their bags and run. Under the plans in the Borders Bill, Ukrainians reaching the UK to seek protection would be considered criminals, denied the right to seek asylum and face being sent to offshore detention.

In 2021, Hibiscus supported a total of 843 clients, 200 of whom were potential victims of trafficking in prison, detention and in the community. Some 85 per cent of the women supported by Hibiscus in the community are survivors of trafficking. Our front-line team members work with minoritised women at all stages of the National Referral Mechanism process. We engage, manage and develop partnerships with organisations and stakeholders working with victims of modern slavery and who conduct research to contribute to Hibiscus findings into policy debates.

The answers do not lie in Rwanda. The Ministry of Justice and Home Office must ensure that the new Nationality and Borders Bill will not criminalise or impose any unfair treatment on those who are victims of trafficking, modern slavery, or domestic abuse. We need to do much more to establish legal rights for refugees, not rely on warped schemes devised as PR campaigns to win votes.

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