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What’s behind the UK’s harsh post-Brexit asylum overhaul?

‘There are no regular routes.’

Signs outline the distance of 2 metres apart in front of a linked fence. Rebecca Naden/REUTERS
Social distancing markers are seen inside the Penally Training Camp, which was transformed into a temporary camp for asylum seekers arriving in the UK, outside the village of Penally in Wales, 21 September 2020. The camp has since been closed.

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Last week, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, released a rare and strongly worded commentary on the UK government’s proposed plan to overhaul the country’s asylum system.  

The agency expressed concern that “the plan, if implemented as it stands, will undermine the 1951 [Refugee] Convention and international protection system, not just in the UK, but globally.”

“If states, like the UK, that receive a comparatively small fraction of the world’s asylum seekers and refugees appear poised to renege on their commitments, the system is weakened globally,” the policy note added. 

Over the past year, widely televised images of dinghies carrying asylum seekers arriving on English beaches have stoked a sense of crisis over irregular migration in the UK, setting the stage for Interior Minister Priti Patel at the end of March to introduce a significant overhaul of the country’s asylum rules – involving more than 40 suggested changes to the existing system.

The central principle of the new plan – which says it aims to “break the business model of smugglers” by privileging asylum seekers who arrive through legal channels while creating barriers to protection for those who arrive irregularly – is “fairness”, according to Patel. 

But rights groups and asylum advocates say the approach is more about leveraging the perception of a crisis to build a severely restrictive asylum system for the post-Brexit era, and that the emphasis on legal routes is just a smokescreen. They say it follows in the footsteps of countries like Denmark and Australia, which have implemented harsh policies to try to reduce to zero the number of asylum seekers irregularly entering their territory to claim protection.

“Smugglers exist because of hostile policies like these.”

“There are no ‘regular’ routes [to the UK],” Gulwali Passarlay, a 26-year-old Afghan refugee and author who arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor 13 years ago, told The New Humanitarian.

“Smugglers exist because of hostile policies like these,” Passarlay continued. “Now, women and children will be forced to make these risky journeys because the government is restricting family reunification, and smugglers will tell people not to claim asylum when they get here because the government will punish them if they do.”

In 2019, the UK – with a population of around 66 million – received just over 35,700 asylum applications, placing it 17th out of 28 countries in the EU at the time in terms of applications per capita. In comparison, Germany received more than 142,000 first time applications, France received more than 138,000, and Spain received just over 115,000. 

Last year, despite the uptick in people crossing the Channel by boat, the number of asylum applications filed in the UK actually fell to 29,456, as fewer people seeking protection arrived by air due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions. 

Last week, a brief public consultation process on the proposals ended, and in the coming months a draft bill will be brought to parliament – where the governing Conservative Party holds a sizeable overall majority – for consideration. As the debate over the proposed overhaul intensifies, here’s a look at some of the key talking points. 

What’s behind the uptick in English Channel crossings by boat?

Last year, nearly 8,500 asylum seekers crossed from France to the UK by boat, compared to around 1,900 in 2019. So far this year, the number stands at more than 1,850 people

The majority of asylum seekers who arrived in the UK in 2020 were from Iran, Albania, Iraq, and Eritrea. Family and community links as well as English language skills are frequently cited reasons for choosing the UK, often hastened by harsh asylum measures in other parts of Europe.

For example, critics say a chronic housing shortage for asylum seekers in France is part of an intentional strategy by authorities aimed at dissuading people from seeking protection in the country. It has led to a cycle of migrant camps being erected and demolished in the area around the French port city of Calais, pushing increasing numbers to attempt to cross the Channel. 

Prior to 2020, asylum seekers attempting to enter the UK from northern France primarily tried to stow away in lorries crossing the Channel by ferry or through the Eurotunnel. But the pandemic has led to a slowdown in traffic, pushing people toward alternative routes. 

The UK has also invested at least £114 million ($159 million) since 2015 in surveillance technology and border control equipment – including razor-wire fences, CCTV, and infra-red detection technology in northern France – to prevent and detect stowaways. 

In testimony to a parliamentary committee in September 2020, Dan Mahoney, an ex-Marine appointed “Clandestine Channel Threat Commander” to tackle irregular crossings, said the measures against stowaways had contributed to the rise in attempted journeys by boat. 

Why is the UK government launching the new asylum plan now and what does it entail? 

After formally withdrawing from the EU on 1 January this year, the UK is in the process of rewriting rules and regulations previously governed by EU-wide laws and agreements, including those related to immigraton and asylum. Against the backdrop of the perceived crisis in the Channel, the new asylum plan is part of that process. 

Patel says the existing asylum system is "collapsing under the pressure of the parallel illegal routes” and should be “based on need, not the ability to pay people smugglers”. 

The new plan aims to encourage asylum seekers to use safe and legal routes by offering more integration support and permanent legal status to people resettled through official programmes. At the same time, it aims to deter irregular entry by denying people who do so the automatic right to asylum, making it easier to remove them to safe countries they passed through en route to the UK. Those who cannot be immediately removed may be granted temporary protected status with fewer rights than refugees who enter through official channels, and still regularly reassessed for removal. 

“They are saying that the only genuine refugee is one who uses our routes and we will punish those who come in a way that we don’t approve of.” 

“For the first time,” says Patel in a foreword of the New Plan for Immigration, “whether you enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on how your asylum claim progresses and on your status in the UK, if that claim is successful.”

But UNHCR, in its commentary on the proposed changes, said: “Attempts to relieve pressure on the UK asylum system by narrowing access to it for those arriving irregularly are neither effective nor sustainable ways to address the system’s current weaknesses.”

Chai Patel, legal policy director at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), went further. “The wording [of the plan] is worrying and vague,” he told The New Humanitarian. “They are saying that the only genuine refugee is one who uses our routes and we will punish those who come in a way that we don’t approve of.” 

Core elements of the plan have already run into roadblocks, with EU governments saying they will not sign bilateral agreements that would allow the UK return asylum seekers to European countries. Previously, returns were governed by the EU’s Dublin regulation, which the UK is no longer a party to. 

What “safe and legal” pathways currently exist for asylum seekers and refugees to reach the UK?

Despite the new plan’s emphasis on safe and legal routes, there are very few options for asylum seekers to reach the UK without embarking on irregular journeys.

Since 2015, the UK has resettled around 25,000 people – primarily refugees from the Syrian conflict – and welcomed an additional 29,000 close relatives of refugees through family reunification.

A new “global” resettlement scheme to settle around 5,000 refugees annually was meant to start in 2020, replacing an amalgamation of ad hoc programmes. But the government suspended resettlement due to the pandemic in March, and it is yet to say when it will resume. 

Technically, the UK is one of the leading resettlement countries in the world, but only because the bar is set very low, according to rights advocates. In 2019 – the year before COVID-19 interrupted efforts – fewer than 64,000 refugees were resettled globally (including around 5,700 to the UK) through UNHCR; out of 1.4 million estimated to be in urgent need. 

Since Brexit, EU regulations governing family reunifications have also been replaced by far more restrictive national immigration rules, and child refugees in the UK can no longer apply for their parents or siblings over 18 years old to join them in the country. Charities have accused the government of leaving vulnerable refugees stranded in Italy and Greece after transfers agreed to pre-Brexit were delayed due to the pandemic. They have now, apparently, been discontinued. 

Beth Gardiner-Smith, CEO of Safe Passage International, an NGO that assists family reunifications, told The New Humanitarian that 95 percent of the cases they are involved with would not qualify under the UK domestic legislation.

“The restrictive criteria mean the majority of children are not eligible under the rules as they stand. Until [the rules change], they will continue to be forced to risk dangerous journeys on dinghies or in the back of lorries,” Gardiner-Smith said.

Meanwhile, rights advocates are concerned that the distinction being made by the government between people travelling regularly and irregularly is creating a false distinction about who is legally entitled to protection. “Resettlement shouldn’t replace the country’s obligations to the Refugee Convention,” said Patel, of JCWI. The Refugee Convention stipulates that people are entitled to have their protection claims heard regardless of how they enter a country. 

How are asylum seekers who arrive irregularly currently treated in the UK? 

In September 2020, in response to apparent pandemic-related pressures on the housing system for asylum seekers, the UK Home Office announced that two threadbare former military barracks would be used as accommodation. 

Within months they became a target for far-right protests, a COVID-19 outbreak across January and February infected nearly half of the 400 residents, and a large fire destroyed part of one facility. A former immigration minister suggested the barracks were deployed for deterrent purposes, to make the UK seem “as difficult and inhospitable as possible”. A highly critical report by inspectors noted serious mental health needs and slammed the site as “filthy”, “decrepit”, and “unfit for habitation.”

Bella Sankey, director of the NGO Detention Action, told The New Humanitarian that the proposals open the door to further use of squalid accommodation or even detention for the long term. 

“At least in prison you have a release date.”

“Without bilateral arrangements with other countries to take people back, which this whole system hinges on, an increasing number of people will be warehoused in deeply inappropriate, inhumane facilities,” Sankey said. 

The UK remains the only country in Europe without a statutory time limit on immigration detention.

“Some of our clients have been detained for years, even when it was clear that they could not be removed,” Sankey said. “Detainees describe it as mental torture, most citing the indefinite nature as the key thing that makes experience so unbearable and scarring. At least in prison you have a release date.”


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