Human rights at risk in the UK government’s planned overhaul of the asylum system

12 Nov, 2020 | Asylum and Detention, Blogs, Latest

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by Reanna Smith

The UK government has recently promised to make big changes to the UK’s asylum and immigration system, following an increasing number of refugee arrivals via small boat crossings this summer. The Conservative government’s anti-immigration stance isn’t anything new, with the Prime Minister promising immigration reform during his bid for leadership and continuing to make this pledge as he negotiated a Brexit deal. But what has been promised for many years is now coming into law as the government yesterday passed its Immigration Bill through the House of Lords ahead of changes to the system from January 1st 2021. 

The Financial Times recently reported that leaked documents revealed a number of draconian measures that the Home Office had been considering with the intention to deter asylum seekers away from the UK. The Home Office confirmed that these “blue sky ideas” were indeed being considered. Just a few of the most controversial proposals included offshore immigration detention centres, wave machines to send boats back to France and even barriers built in the ocean to stop desperate asylum seekers from entering UK waters. 

Shortly after these ideas were revealed, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel confirmed that she would “overhaul” the UK asylum system, claiming that it is “fundamentally broken”. The government’s stance surrounding the asylum system, the way it speak about it, and the actions taken, only serve to expand the misconceptions surrounding asylum in the UK. The narrative portrayed by the government, and much of the UK media is that the UK is taking in an extraordinary amount of asylum seekers, that the country cannot handle this and that many of these people are here “illegally”. In reality, this just isn’t true. 

The UK actually takes in a very small amount of the global refugee population. According to the Refugee Council, the UK is home to approximately one percent of the 29.6 million refugees forcibly displaced across the world. When we look at the rest of Europe, the same numbers apply. The UN Refugee Agency shared figures by Eurostat in August revealing that in 2019 France received 123,900 asylum applications, while Germany received more than 142,000. In the same year, the UK received 35,566. 

Despite a recent push for an increasing number of deportations, and regularly referring to those crossing the English Channel on small boats as “illegal immigrants” the Home Office confirmed in September that an overwhelming amount of people crossing the English Channel are genuine refugees.

As well as this, the government seems to be centring its approach on the issue of preventing arrivals via small boat crossings. Although numbers of these crossings increased in recent months, this still represents a minority of the UK asylum seekers who enter the country. Of the 35,566 asylum seekers to enter the UK last years, only 1,892 of those are estimated to have entered via small boat crossings. 

The UK does not have an immigration or asylum issue in terms of numbers. In fact, the country is reliant on refugees and immigrants to sustain many vital sectors, such as the care sector. This does not mean, however, that other challenges do not exist. Home Office Secretary Priti Patel was right to claim that the UK asylum system is fundamentally broken, but it is broken due to the inhumanity that asylum seekers and refugees face at the hands of the Home Office. The majority of asylum seekers are now waiting for over six months for decisions on their asylum applications. It is illegal for them to work during this time resulting in many asylum seekers experiencing extreme destitution. As well as this, unaccompanied child refugees do not have the right to have their parents join them in the UK. The UK is also the only European country to allow the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and immigrants. This is particularly worrying considering the conditions reported within these detention centres, with many charities claiming that abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts are all regular occurrences. The asylum system is tearing desperate families apart, and the UK is failing in its international duty to protect refugees.

Despite claiming its commitment to protecting asylum seekers in the UK, the government’s actions dispute this. Before the signing of the Bill,  conservative MPs rejected amendments to the Immigration Bill that would have guaranteed safe legal routes for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe into the UK. They also would have retained the right to family reunion in the UK after the Brexit transition period, which is currently covered by the outgoing Dublin III regulation.

Speaking about the Immigration Bill ahead of the most recent vote on amendments, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty UK, said: “The current system blocks people from vital access to safe accommodation and support, separates child refugees from their families and prevents migrant victims of domestic abuse from seeking the life-saving protection they need. The Immigration Bill is a crucial opportunity for MPs to create a system that is safe, fair and puts people at the heart of the UK Government’s policy and practice.”

Unfortunately, many MP’s have failed to take this opportunity once again as they continued to ignore the real issues surrounding the UK’s fundamentally broken asylum system, as evident in the Immigration Bill that was finally passed yesterday.

Reanna Smith writes for the Immigration Advice Service, a legal team that helps persecuted people claiming asylum in the UK and assists asylum seekers facing detention or deportation.  

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