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Our Response to the Proposed Changes to the Asylum System
On the 24th March 2021 the Home Secretary outlined to parliament the government’s plans to reform the system though which refugees can claim asylum in the UK. The statement – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretarys-statement-on-the-new-plan-for-immigration – adopts a high moral tone with much talk of “fairness”, “illegal immigration” and migrants “gaming” the system. However, the substance of the proposals is as follows.
Refugees who are brought to the UK “legally” through future government sponsored resettlement schemes (about which the statement says nothing) will be given indefinite leave to remain and will be given support with integration, learning English, finding a job etc. However, those who arrive by other routes will be treated very differently. The government’s view is that if people have travelled through a safe country such as France then they could and should have claimed asylum there. They are therefore illegal migrants. Their claim for asylum will be deemed inadmissible and every effort will be made to remove them. If removal is not possible, presumably because under international law their claim for asylum is validated (one senses a contradiction here) then they face a new and harsher regime. This is designed to “disincentivise illegal entry”. They will be given temporary protection status, facing regular reassessments for removal, limited access to benefits and limited family reunion rights. Other measures include a maximum life sentence for people smugglers, new rules to stop people “posing as children”, strengthening the enforcement powers of Border Force and streamlining the appeals process.
We have over 25 years of working with refuges whose lives have been shattered as they flee terror and violence. This experience tells us that these plans are deeply flawed. They are unjust, unworkable and can only add to the misery of people seeking to escape persecution. Here is why:
The proposed 2 tier system
The government is effectively making a distinction between deserving and undeserving refugees, the latter being people who are labelled “criminals” because many of them come here on the back of lorries or in small boats, often having paid people smugglers. We hold no brief for people smugglers but this distinction betrays a complete lack of understanding of the desperation that compels people to undertake such risks. We agree with the CEO of the Refugee Council who says “The proposals effectively create an unfair two-tiered system, whereby someone’s case and the support they receive is judged on how they entered the country and not on their need for protection. This is inhumane.” What is needed in our view is more compassion and less demonisation of people who are trying to re-build ruined lives.
The United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951
The Home Secretary has said that the Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, allows countries receiving asylum claims to penalise claimants who have not arrived directly from a country where they were being persecuted. This is a highly questionable assertion which may be tested in the courts as a matter of international law. It is not how article 31 of the convention has been interpreted by the UK in the past. Furthermore, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, effectively the guardian of the 1951 Convention, has said that there is no blanket rule banning asylum seekers from passing through safe countries to reach the UK. ”Anyone seeking asylum should be able to claim in their intended destination or another safe country” a spokesperson has said. He/she also said that while the convention does not provide ”an unfettered right to choose a country of asylum” it does not “oblige asylum seekers to apply in the first safe country they encounter”. Let us be clear it is not a crime to claim asylum in the UK, however the person arrives in the country. It is a human right.
Are the Proposals Workable?
Clearly the proposal to return asylum seekers to “safe” countries through which they have passed needs the consent of France and the other EU nations involved. The Home secretary has not, at the time of writing, secured agreement with any of those countries. Furthermore, we must ask why would such consent be given, particularly by countries that have settled more refugees than the UK. The worsening relationship between the UK and the EU is another factor that may work against such agreement being reached.
Perhaps it is these obstacles that explain why the government, according to widely reported leaks, has been considering offshore processing of asylum seekers in places such as the Isle of Mann, Gibraltar, Scottish islands, Turkey and even the Ascension Islands. However, the authorities in these locations have shown no enthusiasm for the idea which would effectively make prisoners of innocent people in remote places and would be hugely expensive. We agree with Mike Adamson, the chief executive of the British Red Cross, who has said: “Offshoring the UK’s asylum system will do nothing to address the reasons people take dangerous journeys in the first place and will almost certainly have grave humanitarian consequences.” The evidence since the refugee crisis exploded in 2015 suggests that deterrence does not work. People who have escaped terror and torture have little to lose and will risk all to find safer lives. Do we blame them?
What is the UK’s Contribution to the Global Refugee Crisis?
According to the Home Secretary our asylum system “is becoming overwhelmed” by asylum applications and her proposals will safeguard the UK’s reputation as a “haven for those in need”. Some perspective is needed on the UK’s global role. In proportion to its population the UK ranks 16th in Europe for asylum applications. In terms of absolute numbers the UK does not feature in a ranking of the 25 countries with the largest refugee populations (Statista 2019). Today the reality in the UK is that the number of asylum applications is falling, not rising. Britain is still one of the richest countries in the world and yet we give safety to less than 1% of the world’s refugees.
It is in this context that we should consider the UK’s refugee resettlement schemes. The Syrian Vulnerable Persons scheme admitted 20,000 Syrian refugees to the UK and had much to commend it in terms of the support provided. We participated in it. But in terms of numbers, can the 6th biggest economy in the world do no better with its schemes than to admit around 5,000 refugees a year when there are 26,000,000 of them world-wide? Now, it is not even clear that this level of support will be continued, for while the Home Secretary’s statement has made much of the fact that the government will provide safe and legal routes we have been told next to nothing about them. What we do know is that the government has quietly dropped the commitment of the previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to allow in 5,000 refugees a year. This is ominous.
Does Our Asylum System Need Reforming?
Yes, it certainly does but not in the way that the government proposes. It is true that there are some 60,000 people awaiting a decision with about three quarters of them waiting, in desperation and unbearable anxiety, for more than a year. However, the reasons for this are insufficient resourcing, incompetence and a toxic culture in the Home Office that was exemplified by the Windrush scandal. In many cases applicants are approached with an attitude of disbelief rather than protection.
No-one should be under the illusion that decisions on asylum applications are easy. They are not. People who have fled terror and violence often do not have the documentation with them to support their claim. There are barriers to communication which relate to cultural differences and the applicants’ fear of institutional power. However, none of these factors are excuses for sloppy and superficial investigation. The problem is not, as the Home Secretary would have it, one of “lefty lawyers” pursing frivolous claims by people “gaming” the system. According to a report by the Immigration Law Practitioner’s Association Home Office lawyers routinely deploy legally unsound arguments in court, “tend to lack understanding of important procedural questions” and have “little or no knowledge of the applicable law”. For further evidence of Home Office failings look no further than the publication by Freedom From Torture (September 2019) called “Lessons Not Learned”. In the wake of the Windrush scandal this reviewed some 50 reports by charities, NGOs, the UN, Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee, etc, concerning the Home Office’s processing of asylum claims. The problems with Home Office decision making, the report concluded, were “flawed credibility assessments, a misapplication of the standard of proof, along with an environment of disbelief, suspicion and scepticism”. The Home Affairs Committee has said of staff examining asylum claims “it is not their role to aim to reject cases, and the culture of disbelief has no place in fair judgements”.
It is these problems that explain the huge backlog of cases, why 40% of asylum decisions are turned over on appeal and why the Home Office had to drop its own target of reaching a decision within 6 months. Furthermore, if we are serious about being fair it is these problems that must be tackled. The government must urgently rethink its proposals.
Stand up for Asylum! Sign the Petition
Refugee Action is coordinating a national campaign. RRSG is asking all of its supports, members and friends to add their name to the petition.
Claiming asylum is a human right. Everyone has the right to live free from danger, to care for their children in safety. But here in the UK, the asylum system is failing those seeking protection. It’s unfair, ineffective and cruel.
We believe we are better than this.
We believe a future is possible where people forced to flee the homes they loved receive compassion, justice and support.
We believe that Britain can meet the challenges of the future. That the asylum system can be rebuilt for the benefit of all. That those fleeing violence can live in peace and care for their families free from fear.
We believe that Britain has a proud future protecting refugees.
Lift The Ban
People seeking asylum in our country are banned from working. Unable to provide for themselves and their families, they’re often left to live in poverty.
Adding your voice means we can fight harder for change and win over those with the power to make it.
Sign The Petition
Sign the petition to Lift The Ban here:
Read The Report
This Lift The Ban coalition report shows how clear the evidence in favour of giving people seeking asylum the right to work is.
From a rise in the estimated benefit to the Treasury (£97.8 million per year), to enduring public and business support and examples that show lifting the ban makes even more sense during the coronavirus pandemic – this report makes the rational, moral and financial case for the right to work.
It’s common sense. Read the report here: https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Lift-The-Ban-Common-Sense.pdf
Help Us Lift The Ban
There are lots of different ways to get involved with the Lift The Ban campaign. Check out the Activism Pack her to find out more: https://www.refugee-action.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Lift-the-Ban-Activism-Pack.pdf
We joined 100 civil society groups, Windrush survivors and religious organisations in demanding safe and legal routes to apply for asylum now.
This was in response to the government’s dangerous rhetoric surrounding recent Channel crossings and the recent death of a refugee trying make the crossing.
People seeking protection here in the UK can only do so once they reach UK soil. There are currently no safe or legal routes to apply, forcing desperate people to risk their lives crossing the Channel in dinghies. Applying for asylum is a basic human right and we need safe routes for people to be able to apply to avoid further tragedies.
Read our letter in full and write to your MP demanding action here: https://www.jcwi.org.uk/joint-letter-on-channel-crossings