7 March 2023

Groundhog Day for asylum policy?


“Okay campers, rise, and shine, and don’t forget your booties ‘cause it’s cold out there… it’s cold out there every day.”

In the film Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s jaded weatherman Phil Connors first realises something is amiss when he wakes to ‘I got you babe’ on his radio alarm and the same announcement as the day before – time and time again. Some of us may have had a similar feeling listening to the Today Programme as we started this week.

It may be a different Prime Minister and a different Home Secretary – we have had no shortage of change there – but the message and the policy to ‘stop the boats’ outlined this week sounds eerily familiar to the message from Priti Patel as she introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill in November 2021 (which received royal assent in April of last year).

The new asylum bill outlined by Number 10 repeats the promises that the Government made in last year’s legislation – and failed to keep. There are some cosmetic differences, such as Suella Braverman now having a ‘legal duty’ to tackle Channel crossings. Yet few people would claim that the reason Priti Patel failed to make a dent in the numbers of crossings was because her heart wasn’t in it. It was because, with the policy approach that the Government tried in 2022 and is now reheating for 2023, she couldn’t.

The key point is that the Government has yet to offer any workable solutions to two big practical problems: it doesn’t have enough detention places; and it cannot deport everyone when it doesn’t have agreements with other countries to do so safely.

Under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, people can already be declared ‘inadmissible’ for asylum in the UK if they have arrived across the Channel from a country that the UK deems to be safe. Indeed, almost 20,000 people received notices of inadmissibility during 2022. Yet the Government has not been able to remove those who have been declared ‘inadmissible’, and 99% of those not from Albania were later readmitted into the asylum system to pursue their claim. So far the main impact of the inadmissibility rule has been to add a six-month delay to asylum processing at the start, requiring more hotel accommodation to be used for longer.

The fundamental problem here is that the Government has nowhere to send many of the people who cross the Channel and claim asylum. The UK does have a returns deal with Albania, but not with countries such as Afghanistan, Iran or Syria, which are all in the top five countries of origin for people seeking asylum in the UK, and where safe returns would be impossible. Nor do we have a returns deal with France or other European countries. So the British authorities don’t have anywhere to remove or send those crossing the Channel, unless they are from Albania.

The Rwanda policy was conceived of as a potential solution to this challenge. If deemed legal, the Government could deport some asylum seekers, dependent on the capacity in Rwanda. But the Government itself admits that even when the UK-Rwanda plan is up and running, it will only relocate a few hundred asylum-seekers a year, almost certainly less than 5% of those crossing the Channel. A one-in-twenty chance of being relocated is unlikely to deter people who are already willing to risk their lives in small boats.

A further practical difficulty is that detaining everyone who arrives by small boat, prior to their removal, would require a ten-fold expansion of detention capacity. While the Government is making a commitment of £70m to explore potential future options for increased capacity, there is no realistic prospect of an expansion on anything like the scale needed prior to the next general election. It would also most likely be unlawful: detaining large numbers of people for long periods of time, who have committed no crime except exercising their legal right to claim asylum, would be very likely to be found to be in breach of both the European Convention on Human Rights and domestic human rights legislation.

All of which suggests the pledge to detain and remove all people who cross the Channel has no prospect of being honoured in the next two years. The Government has talked about a new safe route, but only as an add-on after the Channel situation has been resolved – which means it is unlikely to materialise before 2025.

Those of us critiquing the Government’s approach, who believe that the UK should uphold its responsibilities to offer people refugee protection if they need it, cannot just be voices of complaint. ‘Well, what’s your answer?’ is a perfectly reasonable retort.

I cannot offer one solution that will ‘fix’ the problem of people making dangerous Channel crossings, and the wider issues with our failing asylum system. But I can offer several.

As with most policy challenges facing the Government, there is no one ‘silver bullet’ solution: those are for Twitter and talk shows. But a series of practical changes could make a difference. A significant, but capped, offer of a safe route for people to come to the UK to make an asylum claim would undermine the people smugglers’ business model and break the deadlock with France to help secure a new deal on cross-Channel cooperation. We can speed up the asylum process so the Home Office no longer needs to spend millions on hotels for people left in limbo awaiting a decision. We can have more safe returns of those whose claims fail; and help to integrate, learn English and find work for those granted refugee status. British Future set out its proposals a fortnight ago in the report Control and Compassion.

It is possible to reform the asylum system so it is more effective, more orderly and more humane. But that will take a different approach. Repeating the failed policies of last year but expecting different results will fail both the people needing protection and the many voters who want the Government to get a grip.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.