Immigration: deterrence policies ‘will never solve’ UK asylum seeker crisis - what should be done instead
‘The government is trying to make conditions so bad in the UK that asylum seekers cease coming here - but this will fail,’ Refugee Action told NationalWorld.
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Deterrence policies will never solve the asylum seeker crisis, refugee charities have warned, as they urged the government to re-consider its approach to tackling illegal migration.
Ever since Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman unveiled their new ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ back in March, it has been a topic of significant controversy. The Home Office insists the proposed new legislation will help the Prime Minister deliver his pledge to ‘stop the boats’ - “bringing the numbers down” and reducing the asylum seeker backlog, which last Thursday (25 May) was revealed to be at a record high.
However, charities and experts have warned that the bill effectively amounts to a ban on seeking asylum, breaching human rights laws and the Refugee Convention. They also argue it will do little in reality to tackle the crisis, with Tara Povey, policy and research manager at Refugee Action, telling NationalWorld: “The idea of the Illegal Migration Bill is to make conditions so bad for people seeking asylum that they cease coming to the UK.
“But this policy of deterrence has been proven to be ineffective,” she argued, pointing to previous research conducted internally by the Home Office which found that creating a “hostile” environment for migrants did not reduce the number attempting to come to the UK.
“One of the main reasons for this is that most asylum seekers actually do not know much about the UK or its system before they arrive here,” Alice Lucas, Red Cross policy and advocacy manager, explained. “So they don’t know (enough) to be deterred by hostile conditions, the huge backlog, or the possibility of deportation.”
She added that the majority of migrants targeted by the Illegal Migration Bill - those deemed to have arrived in the UK ‘illegally’ - generally aren’t drawn by the “pull factors” which ministers often talk about, such as welfare benefits or employment prospects. “Instead, they come here because they are driven out of their countries by things like conflict, persecution, or political instability.”
The most common “pull factors” for asylum seekers are knowledge of the language, having family in the UK, or feeling cultural ties due to the country’s colonial history. “It’s important people understand these are reasons refugees may travel to the UK over France for instance,” Lucas explained, “reasons which don’t disappear when you create deterrence policies.”
As well as constituting a “failed” approach to the asylum crisis, deterrence policies also have “a cost”, Povey said. This includes a “human cost”, with detrimental impacts on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers who have to endure “substandard accommodation”, “hostile conditions”, and “lengthy periods of uncertainty” while they await decisions on their claims.
But there is also a “financial cost”, Povey argued, with the government “wasting millions of pounds of public money” on “unwise” pursuits such as buying drones to police the English Channel and paying private contractors for housing. She added: “Analysis by Refugee Action also shows that stopping asylum seekers from working - and instead forcing them to survive on just over £6 a day - costs the taxpayer over £400 million a year.”
‘A system which is compassionate, accessible and workable’
Charities like Refugee Action and Red Cross are encouraging the government to implement an asylum system which is “compassionate, accessible, and workable”. Povey explained: “A compassionate system is one where people are believed, welcomed, and treated with dignity - and are able to start rebuilding their lives.”
“An accessible system is one where people can claim asylum without putting their lives at risk by crossing the Channel. It is completely legal to come to the UK to seek asylum so we have a moral and lawful duty to make it possible.”
Finally, a “workable” system, Povey added, is one where “decisions on claims are made in a timely and fair manner, where people are given access to information and legal representation, and where people await decisions in safe and appropriate environments.”
Create safe and legal routes
A crucial part of making the UK’s asylum system “compassionate, accessible, and workable” is the creation of safe and legal routes, Povey continued. “At a time where there has been increasing conflict, instability, and persecution in many parts of the world, the ways for people to reach the UK remain extremely limited. And it’s the lack of these routes that force people to take dangerous journeys,” she said.
Instead, Refugee Action suggests asylum seekers be given ‘transit’ or ‘leave to enter’ visas, so people can reach the UK in a safe and well-organised manner and then have their claims heard and processed. “The UK also needs to better commit to resettlement schemes,” she continued.
“Obviously, the government tried to set up one for refugees from Afghanistan. But the communication of this was poor - meaning very few people actually got resettled via this route, and tragically, some Afghans still attempted unsafe journeys in desperate attempts to get here”. The UK took 5,792 arrivals from refugee resettlement schemes in 2022.
Dealing with the backlog
The other issue which is inhibiting the UK’s ability to take its “fair share” of asylum seekers is the backlog in the system. According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, more than 172,000 people were waiting on an initial decision on their application at the end of March 2023 - a 50% increase on the same time last year.
This is “devastating” for “desperate men, women, and children who are forced to wait a really long time to re-start their lives,” Lucas told NationalWorld. “People wait in uncertainty for months and even years to get decisions on their claims, which is really difficult on their mental and physical health”.
But this issue can be addressed. “One easy fix,” Lucas suggested, “would be to create more streamlined application processes for people from countries with high asylum grant rates.
“In 2022 for example, a huge proportion of people who came to the UK were from Syria and Eritrea, and 98% of these claims were granted. So if you create a faster process for these countries - and leave the more intense processing and decision-making for the more complex cases - you’re already cutting the backlog”.
Uphold the right to seek asylum
As well as advising on the various practical ways to improve the UK’s system, both Refugee Action and Red Cross stressed the importance of maintaining the right to claim asylum.
“The ability to seek protection and support is crucial for protecting people from modern slavery, human trafficking, and smuggling,” Lucas explained. “It’s really important to remember that these are people arriving here, whether that be via small boats, lorries, or planes. We have to maintain the principle of asylum”.
Echoing Red Cross, Povey added: “It’s already well established that the UK takes a tiny proportion of the world’s globally displaced people. The huge majority are in neighbouring countries, mostly concentrated in the developing world. So we have to do our part”.
“We want the UK to fulfil its international obligations and not be an outlier in terms of asylum protection, which we fear will happen if the Illegal Migration Bill becomes a reality”.
The government maintains the bill is a “necessary, urgent, and compassionate response” to the challenges the UK’s immigration system faces - and will stop those making small boat crossings being “placed in peril at the hands of the people smugglers”.