Home secretary Priti Patel unveiled Britain’s new “two-tier” asylum system yesterday but immediately faced searching questions over the viability of the plans and a failure to secure deals with European neighbours over the removal of illegal migrants. Announcing what the government described as the biggest overhaul of the immigration system in decades, Patel said the introduction of “safe, legal” routes for asylum seekers would make the system “faster and fairer”.
But opposition politicians, human rights groups and immigration lawyers rounded on the proposals saying they were inhumane and lacked clarity. “The government policy is defined by a lack of compassion and a lack of competence and I’m afraid the plans outlined today look like they’re going to end up exactly the same way,” said Nick ThomasSymonds, shadow home secretary. He added that the government’s plans relied on new international agreements but noted Patel had given details of none.
The plans would for the first time create a “two-tier” system, discriminating against applicants who reached the UK by illegal means. Britain, like other western countries, has previously treated Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees as obliging it to treat all asylum applicants the same way, regardless of whether they broke immigration laws to enter the country. A central component of the new plans is that many applicants who arrive in the UK from a safe third country and seek asylum would immediately be returned to that country. The UK has lacked deals to return migrants to any other country since December, when the UK left the EU’s Dublin regulation, which obliges members under some circumstances to accept the return of some migrants who were first registered in their country and then sought asylum elsewhere.
Patel told the BBC the Dublin convention system had not worked well and had made it difficult to return people to countries they had previously transited. But she was unable to give any specifics about when replacement deals might be struck, saying only that the UK was in talks with EU member states. A French interior ministry official welcomed the UK’s steps to make its territory “less attractive for migrants who shouldn’t be migrating” but insisted it would not strike a bilateral deal with the UK to accept returned asylum seekers. “That’s a subject that must be negotiated between the EU and the UK,” the official said. Patel was also unable to give specifics about when the UK might start offering the safe, legal alternatives to illegal migration that ministers have said they want would-be refugees to use to reach the UK. “We’re already in discussions with a range of international partners,” Patel said.
The proposals promised only to “keep the option open” of sending migrants to a third country for processing “if required in the future”. Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Turkey all last week denied being in talks about hosting such a processing centre after reports mentioned them as possible venues. The plan is intended to cut the number of clandestine crossings of the English Channel. There were 8,420 asylum claims last year by people who had crossed the Channel in small boats, while there have been 800 this year.
As well as the disincentives for migrants, the proposals would bring in maximum life prison sentences for people involved in people trafficking. There have been multiple deaths of people attempting clandestine migration to the UK, including an Iranian family of four who drowned off Calais in October. Overall, the UK received 29,456 asylum applications in 2020, an 18 per cent decline on the previous year. About half of all applications resulted in the grant of some form of refugee protection. But lawyers and advocates for refugees were sceptical the government’s proposals would be effective. Matthew Saltmarsh, UK spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN body set up under the 1951 convention, said there was no international law making it illegal to claim asylum just because someone had first travelled through a safe third country such as France. “Penalising asylum seekers on this basis risks making claimants destitute and leaving more people in limbo, without addressing the fundamental causes behind displacement and onward movements,” he said.
Colin Yeo, a leading immigration barrister, said that for the planned deterrents to work, there would need to be a mechanism to communicate the new system to would-be migrants looking to come to the UK. The penalties would have to be sufficient to deter them. “There’s no evidence to suggest either of those things will happen,” Yeo said.
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris