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New plan for immigration could threaten a more hostile environment for asylum seekers

Posted on 26 March 2021

Home secretary Priti Patel has announced plans to overhaul asylum rules - in this article, Professor Simon Parker from our Department of Politics explains why the move sets a worrying precedent.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel has unveiled what she calls a ‘New Plan for Immigration’ that promises ‘the biggest overhaul of the UK's asylum system in decades.’ A central feature of the new rules is to introduce a strict separation between those who entered the UK without prior authorisation as asylum seekers and those who arrived via ‘safe and legal routes.’ The Home Secretary regards the current system as “broken” and one which is “putting lives at risk and fuelling criminality” as a result of people smuggling. She also regards the “clogged up” asylum system to be in urgent need of reform because the Home Secretary alleges there are too many “bogus claims” and opportunities for appeal once a claim has been rejected.

Two-tier system

Under the new proposals, those who have entered the United Kingdom ‘illegally’ and who are deemed to have travelled through what the Home Office regards as a safe third country (in practice any other European country) will be considered indefinitely removable even if they are granted asylum. They will receive limited family reunion rights and limited access to benefits. This would effectively create a two-tier system of asylum seekers that the British Red Cross has called “inhumane” and the Refugee Council’s Enver Solomon said would: “unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee by choosing to provide protection for those fleeing war and terror based on how they travel to the UK.”

These changes are significant because the government’s designated resettlement schemes accounted for only 20 percent of asylum claims in 2019. Yet all the UK government’s official resettlement schemes have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and no date has yet been announced for their resumption. There are therefore currently no ‘safe and legal routes’ by which an asylum seeker could enter the UK.

When challenged on  BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to justify how the systematic refusal of an asylum claim based on the route of entry could be compatible with the Refugee Convention, the Home Secretary insisted her proposals were fully compatible with the UK’s international refugee treaty obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights. However, as the interviewer pointed out, asylum seekers are not obliged to claim asylum in the first country of arrival. Following Brexit, the UK’s departure from the Dublin Convention makes it far less likely that ‘moral obligations’ will be more effective than international legal obligations were in persuading EU countries to take Britain’s unwanted asylum seekers. In fact the BBC revealed that since the UK left the Dublin agreement not a single asylum seeker has been returned to France or any other EU country by mutual agreement

These measures are likely to considerably increase the number of refused asylum seekers held in immigration detention centres without time limit, and as Sir Stephen Shaw found in his recent immigration detention report, the length of time those who are detained pending removal is already “deeply troubling.”

Harder measures

While there has been less mention of Australian-style ‘off-shore’ asylum processing facilities due to a seeming lack of available candidate countries for the irregular asylum seekers that the Home Secretary would like to ban, further changes aimed at clarifying what constitutes a “well-founded fear of persecution” will make it much harder for people to be granted refugee status on the basis of what the Home Office considers unsubstantiated claims. The government says these  “firm but fair” changes including “tougher, more accurate” age assessments of asylum seekers -  which worryingly combine a policy goal with what should be an independent evidence based process with a bias towards protecting the rights of the child - are designed to deter risky attempts to enter the UK at the hands of criminal organisations.

Yet all the evidence from research into asylum seeking journeys, including our own on the Mediterranean migration crisis of 2015-16, found that those seeking sanctuary have little or no awareness of how they will be treated when they reach their destination. They only know that however much more hostile the current Home Secretary plans to make their existence, it cannot be worse than life under the barrel bombs of Syria, the slave armies of Eritrea, the inhumane squalor of burned out reception camps’ in Greece or the violent police attacks that unaccompanied child refugees are regularly subject to on the streets of Paris and northern France. 

Rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol were never intended to be a gift exclusively bestowed by a government minister with a very selective view of who counts as a ‘good’ and ‘admissible’ asylum seeker. This move, if successful, will set a worrying precedent for other signatory states that feel they can selectively interpret the Convention’s provisions without regard to the universal principles of humanitarian protection and refugee law.