Exclusive: Amnesty warned Home Office in 2020 that policies would lead to ‘humanitarian crisis’ in asylum system

The human rights organisation has urged the Government to ‘stop trying to avoid responsibility’ for the crisis

Government policy has wrecked the asylum system,” a leading human rights charity has warned, by failing to process thousands of asylum claims despite warnings that the policy would lead to the current problems.

Speaking exclusively to NationalWorld, Amnesty UK has accused ministers of “political cowardice,” shirking responsibility for the issues within the asylum system and creating “a manifest humanitarian crisis”.

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, said the charity is “desperately concerned” about the conditions in Manston, where people who arrive in the UK in order to claim asylum are currently being held in “overcrowded, inappropriate and unsanitary conditions”.

He said Amnesty wrote to the Home Office two years ago to warn that the policies being put forward by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel would lead to massive backlogs.

Home Office warned in 2020 about consequences of asylum inadmissability policy

Valdez-Symonds says that the kind of issues we’re currently seeing, with massive backlogs throughout the system leading to overcrowding and prolonged detention for those who arrive in the UK, were predictable as a result of policy decisions taken first by Priti Patel in 2019 and continued now by Suella Braverman.

“Priti Patel decided that the way in which she was going to address small boat crossings was to grant herself the power to treat people’s claims as inadmissible and so not process them,” he explains.

“And she said she would do that on the basis that 1000s of people would simply be sent to other European countries through which they’d passed. As if any of these European countries who have been receiving and still receive significantly larger numbers of people than us were going to put their hands up and agree to that. Of course, that wasn’t going to happen.

“Amnesty wrote to the Home Office two years ago warning precisely that this approach was going to hugely increase backlogs, delays and dysfunction in this system. I won’t say we predicted the utter collapse of the system that we now see. But we knew and pointed out to officials and ministers that they were massively increasing the workload of the Home Office without actually taking anyone through the system.”

He says this decision was taken because it was thought by some that it would act as a deterrent and therefore reduce the number of people attempting to make the crossing. But, he says, this overlooks a wide body of evidence against deterrence policy and ignores the actual experiences of those who make the journey.

People aren’t making these journeys for fun. They’re not doing it lightly. It’s not a jolly,” Valdez-Symonds says “It’s thought that you can deter people from doing it, as though it’s not already deterrent enough; the thought that people may drown in this water. People know that. Some of them will even know people who have drowned and lost their lives on these sorts of journeys. People know that these circumstances are dangerous for them. But what they also know is that they don’t have any other real alternatives.”

The consequences of the decision to delay the application process for those arriving in the UK via small boat crossings was evidenced in a select committee hearing earlier this month, when it was revealed that 96% of asylum claims logged last year haven’t been processed.

“If you create your system like this you are going to very rapidly create huge backlogs,” Valdez-Symonds said. “And the pressure of those backlogs will press itself all the way back through to the start of the system. Government policy has wrecked our asylum system.”

A Home Office spokesperson responded: “The number of people arriving who seek asylum has reached record levels and continues to put our asylum system under incredible pressure.

“We are increasing the number of caseworkers, streamlining processes and making better use of technology to get the backlog down caused by record levels of illegal migration.”

‘A manifest humanitarian crisis on our territory’

The number of attempted Channel crossings has generally peaked in November, and experts believe this year will be no different, with those who make the crossing likely to end up in crowded and unsanitary conditions at detention centres like Manston.

Valdez-Symonds said Amnesty is “desperately concerned,” about the current situation at Manston, and throughout the UK’s asylum system, highlighting the higher rate of deaths among people in the system in recent years, and a recent investigation which found that seven infants had died in the last two years.

“The bigger concern, obviously, for an organisation like Amnesty, is not the huge waste of public resources - although, of course, we do not welcome that. It’s the suffering that people are going to be put through.

“Whether that’s suffering because they are held in absolutely shockingly overcrowded, inappropriate, unsanitary conditions. Or it’s the suffering that comes from being left in limbo, effectively abandoned by people who are responsible for you, people who call you invaders, even in the wake of someone pitching up at a facility where you are held and hurling petrol bombs at you.

“I do not know what sort of horror and terror that men, women and children in our asylum system must be feeling at this time, let alone if these conditions are allowed to continue. We are responsible now for what is a manifest humanitarian crisis on our territory.”

Neither the Rwanda policy nor provisions in the recent Nationality and Borders Act are likely to resolve the issues in the asylum system and, more likely, stand to aggravate the already-large backlogs we’re currently seeing, he warned.

The Nationality and Borders Act will mandate that many people who are found to be refugees will have to maintain contact with the Home Office and have to reestablish their claim.

And, although there are question marks about the Rwanda policy’s legality, Valdez-Symonds says, even if it managed to get past the courts, “there is no suggestion whatsoever that anything but a relatively small number of incredibly unfortunate people are going to be subjected to this miserable and disgraceful policy”.

Ministers accused of ‘political cowardice’ over asylum policies

The answer, Valdez-Symonds argues, is to “take responsibility” for people who have a strong case to claim asylum here and to properly accommodate people. In the short term, this will involve “a very large input of resources very quickly”.

“But there’s almost no point in doing that if you’re not going to address the underlying policy reasons why all this is happening, because it’s just going to suck more and more resources in,” he explains.

“You have to simply stop trying to avoid responsibilities. This country does not receive so many people seeking asylum compared to many other countries, including our nearest neighbours. So instead of this attempt at avoiding responsibilities, we need to take them. Process claims fairly, efficiently, and get people out of the system. That’s the only way to manage this effectively.

“What’s happening in Northern France is neither good for them or us. A significant number of the people who are making these crossings not only have good claims to make - because when we’ve decided them we find them to be refugees - but moreover, many of them have good reason to want to make their claims in our country, because they’ve got family or other connections here.

“So why can’t we identify at least some of those people, particularly those with family here, that we will receive? And the other people, who maybe don’t have such strong connections, can we not encourage and assist France to get them into their asylum system? And can we not just take away all this business for smugglers who keep on thriving from this, rather than perpetuating the same mess?”

Like many who have expertise in this area, Valdez-Symonds believes that ultimately, politicians who enact these kinds of policies know that they will not resolve the issue, but are afraid to face up to the reality of the UK’s responsibilities to take in its share of those fleeing war, persecution and hardship.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s political cowardice. It is our political leaders not being prepared to stand up, take responsibility, and speak straightforwardly to the rest of us. To remind those of us who need reminding that we are talking about human beings, and being so callous in our thoughts and actions to them is a woeful way of being and does no good for any of us.

“Instead it seems that it is too often convenient, and unfortunately, for some would-be political leaders, not only convenient to pander to this, but actually to excite it.

“What’s needed is for someone to get up and say: ‘Actually, what we have been saying about these people and our system is wrong, and we shouldn’t have said it. Of course we can manage this. It’s up to all of us to put our heads down, most importantly in government, to address all of these issues as efficiently and fairly and reasonably as possible. And we’ll do that. We’re sorry.’

“But how many people are brave enough to do that?”