Action Foundation’s CEO Julian Prior reflects on Priti Patel’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ that she said would amount to the “biggest overhaul of our asylum system in decades” to “fix this fundamentally broken [asylum] system”.
For decades, the asylum system has undergone repeated attempts to reform it. Whilst there have been some improvements during this time, few would disagree with the Home Secretary’s analysis of the need for further fundamental change to deliver a system that can command trust across the political spectrum as well as with the refugee sector (including people seeking asylum themselves) and the general public. It is also true to say that there would be many different views on how and where to focus reform given the polarising nature of the asylum system.
There is no doubt that changes are needed with huge backlogs in asylum claims remaining unresolved, limited access to independent legal advice and people being housed in sub-standard accommodation to name just a few issues. However, reading the ‘new plan’ you would be forgiven for thinking that the UK had returned to the numbers claiming asylum twenty years ago when they reached their peak at over 100,000 a year due to the emphasis placed on stopping people coming to the UK on their own initiative.
The reality is that the number of people claiming asylum in the UK is lower than it has been for many years with around 36,000 asylum claims in 2020 with over half being eventually granted refugee status. The reason for so many of the problems in the asylum system is a lack of investment rather than it being overwhelmed by an increase in numbers as the Home Secretary would want us to believe.
The number of people crossing the English Channel in recent months has seen a steady increase (to 8,500 last year) however, this is outweighed by a significant reduction in numbers arriving by other means due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The sight of people arriving on a flimsy dinghy is a powerful image (amplified by the media) that has become the focus for this Home Secretary intent on sending out a tough message that you are not welcome here if this is how you arrive.
Central to the New Plan for Immigration, therefore, are sweeping measures to penalise people claiming asylum in the UK if they have already passed through another safe country. People arriving in the UK in any other way than a designated “legal” route will be considered “inadmissible”. Support will be significantly reduced, grants of asylum will no longer be indefinite but temporary and they will regularly review whether people can be sent home or to another safe country. This, they say, is to break up the trade in people trafficking and encourage “safe and legal routes” for vulnerable people “genuinely” in need of protection.
No detail or clear commitment
I am all for a robust approach to the exploitation of vulnerable people and increasing routes for people in need of protection to resettle in the UK with the support they need to successfully integrate. However, the new plan gave no detail of what these safe and legal routes would be. Despite reference to the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) there was no clear commitment to this (or other schemes like it) re-starting, following its suspension in March 2020, or being expanded in the future. Instead, the emphasis was firmly placed on making it more difficult for people when they do arrive in the UK by any other means than those that are considered by the Home Office “admissible”.
Enver Soloman, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said, “The government is seeking to unjustly differentiate between the deserving and undeserving refugee […] The reality is that, when faced with upheaval, ordinary people are forced to take extraordinary measures and do not have a choice about how they seek safety.”
Reception Centres will be introduced for people deemed to be inadmissible to provide “basic accommodation to process claims” along with a fast–track appeals process with the intent of rapidly returning people to safe third countries. However, no agreements are currently in place with other countries for such returns. Now that we are no longer part of the EU this is likely to be even more difficult than it was when we were signatories to the Dublin agreement (that enabled countries, in theory, to return people seeking asylum to the first safe third country they passed through).
Driving vulnerable people underground
A former senior staff member at the Home Office said he believed Ms Patel was trying to “sound tough”, but that her policies would have very little effect. “There is little incentive for most member states to do a bilateral deal, since the UK tends to be the end of the journey for asylum seekers, and there aren’t really any sanctions the UK can credibly threaten if member states don’t want to agree to a deal,” he said.
Lord David Blunkett, who served as Home Secretary between 2001 and 2004 under Tony Blair, said there was not a “cat’s chance in hell” that the UK would manage to secure bilateral returns deals with EU nations. Raising alarm over the Home Office plan to “divide people into acceptable and unacceptable methods of arrival”, Lord Blunkett added: “It will end up with many people who you can’t send back and are thus treated as second-class citizens, and they will disappear into the sub-economy. All you’re doing is pushing people into illegality.” This will undoubtedly create an increase in destitution, driving greater numbers of vulnerable people underground where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, the very thing that the Home Secretary says she is wanting to address.
Devastating effects of destitution
At Action Foundation we know only too well the devastating effect that destitution has on someone’s health and ability to resolve their precarious situation. Take Yacine for example, one of our beneficiaries who endured an agonising 20 year wait to get his refugee status while facing homelessness and a serious heart condition.
We also know how high–quality legal advice, casework / community support and stable housing all play a vital role in helping people seeking asylum access justice. These elements have been central to our recent Action Access (alternative to detention) pilot, so I was pleased to see reference to providing “more generous access to advice, including legal advice, to support people to raise issues, [and] provide evidence as early as possible” in the New Plan for Immigration.
If we take this statement at face value, this marks an important change to the last fifteen years where access to legal advice has been increasingly difficult, making it extremely hard to have a fair hearing. However, this is a small ray of hope in what will be an ever increasingly two-tier system that will undoubtedly increase destitution, detention, and misery for many people unable to access safe and legal routes through no fault of their own.
The New Plan for Immigration is a blatant attempt to shift the responsibility to support people trying to seek asylum in Europe to other countries who are already receiving more asylum applications than the UK. The Home Secretary justifies this by characterising people arriving through these routes as “illegal” or “criminals”, yet they are far more likely to be the victims of exploitation and criminal gangs. If she were serious about stopping people risking their lives by crossing the English channel in rubber dinghies she could announce a commitment to resettling people seeking asylum that are currently in camps in Northern France rather than seeking agreements to return them there after the Home Office has rejected their claim for asylum.
The ‘New Plan for Immigration Policy Statement’ is now out for a short (6 week) period of consultation (ending 4th May) before it is expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech on 11th May and then laid in Parliament in June just before the summer recess (though this could happen later), with the main passage through Parliament being during the autumn and winter.
You can take part in the consultation here, to register your concerns. Below is some helpful information that highlight some of the key issues that you might find helpful to reference.
In May the ‘Asylum Reform Initiative’ will be launched that is a new project initiated by the six largest refugee advocacy charities in the UK; British Red Cross, British Refugee Council, Scottish Refugee Council, Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and Freedom from Torture. This will be the main resource co-ordinating the refugee sector’s response to these reforms, and we will publish information in due course about how you can get involved in the campaign over the coming months.