Fairness is apparently the value driving the Home Office’s reforms of the UK’s immigration and asylum laws. In her statement before the House of Commons on Wednesday, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, set out how the reforms seek to ‘increase the fairness of our system so we can protect and support those in genuine need of asylum’. Such banal rhetoric disguises how Johnson’s government, hot on the heels of slashing the international aid budget, is undermining the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in the world and further resiling from Britain’s international obligations.
The difficulties with the proposals begin with how the government has decided to assess if someone is in genuine need of refuge. Rather than focussing on why an asylum-seeker has fled their country, Patel has shifted the focus to how they fled. Seemingly, if you are are able to stroll up to an airport ticket desk in the country you are fleeing from, go through security checks manned by immigration officials employed by the government persecuting you, and board a flight to Heathrow, your claim will be enhanced. If, on the other hand, you creep out of your house in the dead of night and trek across miles of perilous terrain, before – if you are lucky – squashing into a rickety dinghy and setting off across the Channel, your claim will be degraded. Perfidious Albion indeed.
For any asylum seekers who take this latter path, or who enter after travelling through a ‘safe third country’, they will be ‘considered inadmissible to the asylum system’, and given a new ‘temporary protection status’ that lets them remain in the UK for no longer than 30 months. Working out whether these proposals are deliberately evil or simply stupid is difficult. They create a two-tier system that rewards those who have the means to escape a country legitimately, and hinders those – often the most vulnerable – who flee by whatever means necessary. Not only is this absurd, but it is illegal, with the Refugee Convention – to which the UK is a signatory – prohibiting states from imposing penalties on refugees ‘on account of their illegal entry’.
Admittedly, the government doesn’t necessarily anticipate refugees entering the UK side-by-side with tourists back from their holidays, but is instead seeking to prioritise those refugees sheltering in UN camps. Here, the UK has a reasonable record, with over 25,000 refugees having been resettled in the UK over the past five years. Although this is on a par with other European states, in focusing on resettlement from camps it ignores the fact that many European countries have vastly higher numbers of refugees seeking asylum directly, with Britain benefiting from its island geography. Those seeking asylum in the UK can’t simply present themselves at a border-point and ask for protection- because there is no border-point to speak of. As the Refugee Council makes abundantly clear, ‘there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum’.
Nor is it reasonable to claim that those in genuine fear for their lives would, like ships in a storm, always seek haven in the first safe port. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of refugees already do so, with most claiming refuge in a neighbouring safe country. Turkey alone holds 3.6 million refugees in camps. Yet it is ridiculous to argue that by virtue of bordering a conflict-ridden country, safe states must take on that country’s poor and oppressed. Instead, caring for refugees is an obligation that must be shared among all safe-nation states.
This is something that the new proposals fail to recognise, and it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that, having left the EU, Johnson’s government wouldn’t object to leaving the international community entirely. Rather than acknowledge this shared obligation, Patel seems to believe that rejected refugees can simply be returned to either their country of origin or to the first safe state they passed through. Unfortunately for her, this requires the consent of these governments, which is glaring by its absence. Most other European states have made clear that they will not accept rejected refugees, and it seems unlikely that blackmailing countries with threats of withdrawing visas to the UK will prompt a volte face, or do much to enhance Britain’s reputation as being ‘open for business’ to the world. Instead, the UK looks like a child who, having had their rules rejected by their friends, sits clutching their ball, staring pathetically at the wall.
Rather than spending her time devising half-baked schemes like putting wave machines in the Channel, or pretending that the UK is about to be overrun by a flotilla of illegal immigrants storming Dover, the Home Secretary might do better to engage with the challenges that pervade the UK’s immigration system. The issue is not ever more refugees making their way to Britain’s gates, with asylum claims now being almost half of what they were in the early 2000s, and nor is it a case that conniving lawyers are constructing ever more devious ways of keeping people claiming asylum in the country. Instead, most of the delays and problems within the asylum system are the result of slow, overly bureaucratic Home Office decision-making. As Colin Yeo writes, ‘there are now nearly 50,000 asylum seekers who have been waiting for over six months for a decision…up from 11,500’ in 2017.
Introducing an effective, efficient decision-making system, and ensuring that those claiming asylum have access to effective legal advice from the outset would do much to transform Britain’s immigration system. The odds on being granted asylum immediately by the Home Office are already about 50-50, and once the decisions of the Upper Tribunal and the appeals courts are taken into account, they rise even higher. Effective legal advice would aid this process, and would stop those ‘last minute’ appeals so loathed by the Home Office.
These appeals are not at the last minute because lefty lawyers are determined to frustrate the government at every turn, but because those claiming asylum are often only provided with lawyers at the very end of the process, when they are facing deportation in immigration detention centres. Not only would providing effective legal advice at an earlier stage smooth the functioning of the immigration system, but it would stop the UK treating people – most of whom are found to be legitimately in fear of their lives – as though they are less than human, with the scandal at Napier Barracks showing how Boris Johnson’s Britain treats some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Illegal immigration is not something that should be dismissed as an obsession of xenophobes. But rather than whip the country into a frenzy over imaginary hordes of refugees at the gates, grabbing votes through lies and deception, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson might find that more is achieved through putting substance ahead of soundbites. Patel’s reforms will do nothing but stoke further hostility to the UK among the international community, while the asylum cases will continue to pile up. As ever, these reforms show a government obsessed with pandering to their political base, more interested in waving flags in a nationalist sandbox than engaging with reality.