Boris Johnson insists radical plans to reshape the way the United Kingdom treats asylum seekers are lawful, even as government lawyers prepare for a raft of legal challenges arising from the decision to create a two-tier system discriminating against ‘boat people’.
Britain has adopted the Australian system whereby people seeking protection as refugees will have their claims assessed based on how they arrive on the UK’s shores. Those who arrive as what the government defines as ‘illegal immigrants’ – which commonly means crossing the 35-kilometre stretch of the English Channel between France and England in a small boat after paying a people smuggler $A1500 or more – will be treated much more harshly than other asylum seekers.
In 2020, there were 8,420 claims for asylum by people who had crossed the English Channel in small boats. This year the number has already reached 800 even during two winter months; most arrivals are expected in the spring and summer when conditions for the crossing are more favourable.
As the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel told MPs on Wednesday, the proposal marks a step change “as we toughen our stance to deter illegal entry and the criminals that endanger life by enabling it.” People smugglers, when caught, face life imprisonment. Patel described the system as overwhelmed. There are 109,000 claims sitting in the asylum queue; 52,000 of these are awaiting an initial asylum decision; almost three quarters have been waiting a year or more; there are 42,000 failed asylum seekers who have not yet left Britain, despite having their claim refused.
The home secretary announced how she proposes to target illegal arrivals who have travelled “through a safe country like France to get to the UK – where they could and should have claimed asylum … We will deem their claim as inadmissible, and seek to remove them”.
“Only where removal is not possible, will those who have successful claims – having entered illegally – receive a new temporary protection status. This is not an automatic right to settle, they will be regularly reassessed for removal, and will include limited access to benefits, and limited family reunion rights”.
At present, those rescued from the boats by the Royal Navy’s patrols or picked up onshore are taken to hotels, receive medical attention and are housed and fed during the protracted assessment, all at UK government expense. The intention now is to establish purpose-built assessment centres with basic accommodation in south-east England to cut costs and speed up processing.
With Johnson’s Conservative Party holding a majority of 80 in the House of Commons, there seems little doubt that Patel’s 50-page proposal, New Plan for Immigration, will win support, but implementation will be the big problem. People from the Middle East and Africa have risked their lives to cross the seas to Britain, only to be rejected and earmarked for deportation. Persuading France or other European countries through which they have travelled to accept them has proved near impossible.
Until December 31 last year, by virtue of its membership in the European Union, the United Kingdom was a participant in the Dublin Convention, under which asylum seekers who first entered the EU through another of its states could be forcibly returned to that country if their claim for asylum were rejected in the UK. In practice, this seldom happened because, once in Britain, the rejected can take advantage of a widespread system of appeals using an ever-expanding branch of the law to challenge the decisions.
Would-be migrants seeking protection after fleeing war zones or persecution are encouraged to apply for asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. In most cases, that is one of the nations on the rim of the Mediterranean, through which they make their way to northern Europe, usually to France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.
Patel says she is negotiating with these and other countries with the aim of reaching agreements to return to Europe not only the majority of the 42,000 rejected asylum seekers who came via the continent but also any new cross-Channel boat migrants without pre-arranged visas. The aim is that unwanted migrants should be flown out as soon as possible, hence the present plan to put them into purpose-built temporary accommodation.
Refugee groups have suggested the proposals are a breach of United Nations conventions, and not one of the 27 member countries of the EU have said they will concur. French officials acknowledged that the new system would be a deterrent to those thinking of using people traffickers but rejected the suggestion that they might take back British ‘rejects’.
Matthew Saltmarsh, the London-based spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said there was no international law against claiming asylum just because a person had first travelled through a safe 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 told the Financial Times.
There have been suggestions that Tony Abbott, former coalition Prime Minister of Australia, and an architect of Canberra’s ‘turn back the boats’ immigration policy and offshore processing, may have had a role in this UK policy change, but I can find no evidence of it. Abbott is a paid UK government advisor to the British board of trade, attending quarterly meetings, with the purpose of helping Liz Truss, international trade secretary, to secure new trade deals for post-Brexit Britain. Despite public assurances well over a year ago that trade deals between Britain and the United States, Australia, New Zealand and other countries could be quickly agreed upon, few have materialised. Those that have been formalised are roll-overs of deals already in place when Britain was an EU member country.
Although Patel’s measures are draconian, Britain is not turning back asylum seeker boats. The Straits of Dover is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, highly dangerous for small boats with inexperienced crews. Customs and navy vessels have been saving migrants from drowning every day.
The UK is considering offshore processing, with Home Office officials briefing the Isle of Man, Gibraltar (a British territory which is part of the Spanish mainland), and Turkey mentioned as possibilities. For the moment, the government prefers to handle those coming ashore on English soil, despite the limited legal status this will give new arrivals, a matter likely to be fought through the courts once the enabling legislation is passed.