Standing at the dispatch box in the House of Commons on Monday, Suella Braverman, the re-appointed Home Secretary, was unrepentant. To her mind, the scandal over her dismissal as Home Secretary from Liz Truss’ mercifully brief government was done and dusted. The fact it was only six days ago was irrelevant nitpicking. Equally, her decisions on the Manston refugee camp, which has been in a state of crisis since the summer, were eminently reasonable. The fact that diptheria and scabies are rampant in the camp, and that the children detained there are pleading for help, their fingers clutching the chainlink fence, are not her fault. As a Home Office spokesperson implied in their statement this week, such events are simply the natural consequence of ever greater numbers of immigrants entering the country unlawfully.
Despite a trenchant response from the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, as well as from MPs on both sides of the House, Braverman begged the Commons to ‘stick to facts, not fantasy’. This was an ironic plea from the Home Secretary who most personifies the cruelly fantastical policies devised by the Conservative government over the past twelve years. Rather than engaging with the issues that drive refugees to enter Britain by crossing the Channel, or constructing effective asylum policies, the government has been obsessed with the fantasy of deterrence. It has created a two-tier system, discriminating between refugees that arrive via regular and irregular means; it has tried to outsource asylum to Rwanda; and it has handed the Ministry of Defence responsibility for boats in the Channel.
As the cries of men, women, and children from the Manston camp show, the notion that people can simply be deterred from coming to the UK is a fairytale. Despite ever more hardline policies from the era of Theresa May onwards, the number of people trying to reach the UK and claim asylum has grown exponentially over the last twelve years of Conservative government. In part, this reflects the breadth and depth of the British Empire, with many would-be immigrants and refugees feeling a kinship with Britain, while it also reflects the diversity of the country, and the fact that English is the world’s second language. But what it most clearly shows is that as crises continue to ravage the world, whether in Syria, Afghanistan, or Ukraine, so too will the exodus of refugees to the UK and other liberal democracies. Even if the Home Office hopes that this will finally be the deterrent that actually deters, the growing number of asylum seekers since the policy was announced would suggest it is a futile one.
Where many campaigners will, nonetheless, find themselves in agreement with Braverman is in the need for the crossings of the Channel to end. The UK is relatively unique in being an advanced liberal democracy with an island geography. It is even more unique in being an island in close proximity to other advanced liberal democracies, like France and Germany. This quirk of geography means that, unlike islands like Australia or New Zealand, it is easy for the government to claim that any genuine asylum seekers would simply get to France or Germany and stay there. They have refuge, and there is no need to travel further or risk the perils of the Channel.
But this rapprochement is all too brief, with campaigners refusing to follow the logic of Braverman and her allies, which is that because the UK is an island nation, it is somehow exempt from international law – or the bonds of common decency. International law does not require asylum seekers to claim asylum in the first safe country they enter, with . Nor is it right – or even pragmatic – for the government to assert that they should do so. As the Conservatives are fond of saying, rights also come with responsibilities. We benefit from being a part of the international community, and with its benefits, come obligations. The government should have learnt after Brexit that it is not so easy to have your cake and eat it.
If the government’s logic on claiming asylum in the UK was followed to its natural end, being granted asylum in the UK would become a virtual impossibility. In prioritising – and perhaps only allowing – asylum claims filed from those who have entered lawfully, the government’s policy denies the lived reality of asylum seekers. Only a vanishingly small, privileged number are able to fly, complete with visa, into the UK, claiming asylum on arrival. These immigrants and refugees may have been able to ‘play by the rules’, as Braverman put it, but they are the rules of a game stacked against the vulnerable and most desperate – in short, rules stacked against the overwhelming majority of refugees.
Instead of constantly brow-beating the French, or trying to bribe them to take our share of the refugees, effective systems by which asylum seekers can claim asylum need to be introduced. The government’s handling of refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan has shown that it can be done, even if there are clearly lessons to be learned – particularly with Afghanistan. Even more pressingly, the government needs to take steps to ensure that those asylum seekers already here are treated humanely, with their rights respected.
Yet for a Home Secretary singularly obsessed with asylum seekers playing by the rules, Braverman is disconcertingly laissez-faire with the rules as they apply to her. Her disregard for the Ministerial Code during Liz Truss’ premiership led to her dismissal (or resignation). Braverman admittedly to regularly using her personal gmail account for Home Office documents, and to using it to discuss policy with a backbench MP and de facto adviser, Sir John Hayes.
But while it may have been these breaches of the code that led to her resignation, it is how she (and her predecessors) have let the immigration centres operate that is most concerning. Immigration detention centres are regularly found to not be operating in breach of legislative standards, with the crisis over the Manston Camp the latest in a long line. Camps like Manston are classed as ‘short term holding facilities’, and are not intended to be used as anything other than as brief layovers. The Immigration and Asylum Act limits detention in these camps ‘for a period of not more than seven days’. Alongside this, facilities that are classed as ‘holding rooms’ are not permitted to hold detainees for more than 24 hours, while all facilities must be assessed as ‘adequate for health’ in terms of their ‘size, lighting, heating, ventilation and fittings…’. Given that the camp, designed to hold 1000, is now holding over 3000 people, with marquees constructed to accommodate the growing numbers, there is little question as to whether these standards are being met.
Much of this is because detainees are being kept for longer than lawfully allowed. An Inspection Report on the camp in August noted that detainees were being kept for longer than 70 hours, while an unscheduled visit this week by David Neal, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, identified a family who had been detained for over 32 days, sleeping on mats. The obvious solution to this is for detainees to be rehoused in more suitable accommodation, which has increasingly been hotels commandeered by the Home Office. Though this is also not an effective long-term solution, the Home Secretary forbade officials from releasing more detainees, disregarding advice that it was unlawful to continue to detain them, while she has also been reluctant to acquire more hotels, noting that the Home Office is already spending millions of pounds on renting accommodation.
If Braverman is not going to let detainees be released from camps without their being accommodation to release them to, but is also not allowing enough accommodation to be acquired to house all the detainees. Such a stance places the Home Secretary in a quandary, with the legislation requiring her to either house detainees or release them.
Admittedly, things are not significantly better beyond the camps and detention centres. Stella Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow, asked Braverman about people detained in her constituency who were crowded into the hotels, with seven or eight crammed in a single hotel room, with few cooking facilities . The Secretary of State’s response was to quip later on in the debate that to her, four star hotels like those used by the Home Office are what she considers pretty good hotels for a holiday. The line might have won some cheap laughs and deepened her support within the increasingly far-right cohort in the Conservative Party, but it disguises the real suffering of detainees. Voters reading the newspapers and hearing lines like this will imagine refugees basking in luxury, strolling around hotel grounds and splashing in the pool, not living in squalor.
Unaccompanied children are in even greater risk, with a report from earlier this month concluding that the hotels currently used are not fit for purpose. Rather than taking steps to immediately remedy the deficiencies, which include staff who have not been cleared by DBS criminal record checks and inadequate healthcare, the Home Office has only promised to improve standards within the next six months.
There are no easy solutions to the migrant crisis – a crisis that affects all of Europe. While the Home Secretary might bemoan the number of migrants claiming asylum on UK shores, the UK receives disproportionately few applications compared to comparable countries. This may also help explain why the British courts, when they finally hear the asylum claims, are much more likely to grant asylum, with almost 75% of claims upheld. By way of comparison, France only approves around 34% of claims.
What is certain is that the current policies being pursued will not solve it. The Rwanda policy is still winding its way through the courts, and even if it is upheld by the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights, will not be operational before the next general election, and even then, will be ineffective. Braverman may dream of it, but that alone will not make it a reality. Meanwhile, using incendiary language like an ‘invasion’ of asylum-seekers will do nothing productive, instead just stoking further hostility and increasing the risks of more attacks like that at Western Jet Foil.
Rather than mocking asylum seekers for seeking refuge, more must be done to make decisions quickly. Initial decisions on asylum are taking over 400 days to be reached, with the number of decisions being made each year currently around 1400 – compared to 2800 six years ago, when the number of applications was hugely lower. Investing in decision-makers and in effective legal advice for refugees would go some way in reducing the backlog. If the courts had more chutzpah, perhaps they would step in, much as the US Supreme Court did in California in the 1970s, ordering the government to reduce overcrowding or release prisoners.
Only a couple of weeks into his premiership, and Sunak must be reconsidering how wise it was to appoint an extremist, yet again, to the Home Office. Braverman may appeal to the far-right of his party and to some of the population, but this appeal will quickly wane if, as seems certain, she does not get a grip on immigration and asylum. Instead of Braverman, we need a Home Secretary with common sense and compassion, who will engage with reality rather than try to bring about nightmares.