With local elections expected to dominate much of the UK’s political news this week, you could suspect that the concurrent timing of the consultation period allotted for assessing the Home Office’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ isn’t altogether coincidental.
The six-week consultation process ends today, on polling day, and the author of the proposed overhaul of the asylum system, Home Secretary Priti Patel, has been away visiting different towns to help promote local Tory candidates.
‘The consultation period until 6 May is relatively short, particularly given the complexity of the proposals and the fact that it is taking place over Easter, the Spring Bank Holiday and local elections,’ notes Dr Ruvi Ziegler, Associate Professor in International Refugee Law at the University of Reading.
Ziegler is also co-author of a recent assessment of the plan for campaign group Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary, in which, like multiple organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers, he expresses serious concerns.
To recap, a principal aim of the Home Office’s ‘New Plan’ is to establish the rule that an asylum seeker’s means of arrival to the UK will determine whether they should be entitled to asylum and the level and length of protection they receive.
Applications of those who have passed through ‘safe’ countries en route to the UK are to be automatically considered inadmissible; the government will seek their rapid removal to that country or to a ‘third safe country’. Other changes include lower protection status, less generous entitlements, and limited rights to family reunion for those who do not arrive in the UK via a resettlement programme.
Along with tougher punishment for those facilitating irregular entry into the UK, the Home Office envisages asylum seekers being offered accommodation in new, ultra-low-cost reception centres, or being removed to offshore accommodation.
The plan would also introduce new bureaucracy for assessing the age of minors, new ways to fast-track appeals, and changes to some policies in the recognition of indefinite right to remain and identifying victims of modern slavery.
According to Ziegler, ‘The proposals are dreadful, and the consultation process is just as bad. The use of leading questions and language has been criticised by a number of groups… To the best of our knowledge no attempt has been made to reach out to migrant communities.
‘It is anticipated that the government will include its proposed legislative changes in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May – five days after the end of the consultation. A big worry, however, is that they will try to push forward some of these changes through secondary legislation which will not require the extensive parliamentary scrutiny of primary legislation.’
Fully aware of the wide impacts of a decade-long effort to make the UK a ‘Hostile Environment’ for ‘illegal immigration’, Ziegler nevertheless adds that the latest proposals represent ‘the most serious attack on the right to claim asylum seen in years.’
His view is shared by Maddie Harris, founder of The Human for Rights Network charity. ‘There are so many aspects of it that are horrifying in isolation, and once you add it all together, it’s an assault on the right to claim asylum in the UK,’ she says.
‘I think what they’ll do is to go in with something extreme, knowing that it will be watered down – but what we’ll end up with is a new asylum policy that’ll still be absolutely horrifying.’
Confusing matters further are the significant legal obstacles to the plan that emerged even before it was presented, which the government is either disregarding or treating as merely temporary.
For example, the scope for the rapid removal of asylum seekers was voided at the start of this year by Brexit, bringing to an end an arrangement called the Dublin Regulation which enabled the UK to return asylum seekers to EU countries they had previously stayed in.
Following Brexit’s annulment of this agreement with the EU, the Home Office has said it will form bilateral agreements with EU countries to return asylum seekers. But EU sources talking to the Independent last week indicated that there are no such agreements in place, and none are likely to be reached soon.
Regardless of this, Harris points out that migrants that she assists at Napier Barracks have been issued with ‘letters of intent’ – notes that explain that their applications are deemed inadmissible, and that over the next six months efforts will be underway to remove them to another ‘safe’ country.
‘And what happens at the end of those six months?’ asks Harris. ‘Will they extend that period?’
The impact on new asylum seekers is one that’s hardly difficult to imagine: levels of prolonged distress and confusion even higher than those that already exist. Given the Home Office’s track record, the distressing factor may well be an underlying aim – possibly the primary one.
‘Psychologically, it’s seriously harmful,’ says Harris. ‘You’re subjecting people to a further delay to them being able to start their lives again, while not actually having a realistic possibility of removing the person.’
In that, the plan introduces a new kind of ‘limbo’ alongside the other types in which so many asylum seekers already exist: going for weeks with no change of clothes, or spending unlimited time stripped of all agency in hotel rooms with prison-type movement rules and no word from the Home Office.
The last year has seen a series of leaked reports and intensified governmental PR strategies designed to both make and be seen to be making life almost intolerable for asylum seekers. These worsened after a protracted spate of manufactured right-wing media outrage in 2020 over asylum seekers arriving by dingy across the Channel and the numbers of asylum seekers being put in emergency hotel accommodation.
The same media was then fed and nourished with streams of news of human-rights-breaking laws being mulled along with militaristic measures to stem the ‘invasion’ of channel-crossing asylum seekers. Starting in September, hundreds were placed in two long-disused army barracks, later described to Harris as the ‘pilot’ reception centres.
Without consulting local authorities or migrants’ aid groups, asylum seekers were cramped in multi-person shared rooms and facilities, despite protests, leading to an avoidable mass Covid-19 outbreak.
And despite the buildings being classed as unsuitable for living purposes by Public Health England and the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, and a string of lawsuits, the Home Office has proved determined to keep one of them—Napier Barracks—open – a decision primarily to do with its PR value for a government desperate to look tough.
Harris says that asylum seekers numbers are increasing at Napier. Its new capacity of 337 occupants should be reached by the end of next week, and while this has already triggered protests, it’s worth remembering too that news reports of distressed and impoverished asylum seekers is, for a portion of the Tory right, good press.
‘Every time we talk about how harmful Napier is, we’re almost playing straight into their hands,’ Harris says. ‘They want it to be shown that they are being as hard on these ‘illegal immigrants’ as their voters want them to be, and in that way, they are creating a visual deterrent for other people.’
With this in mind, one might feel that the new plan for immigration is little more than a bigger, more expansive, yet still essentially optics-oriented outline with minimal purpose beyond placating the Right. But to those inside, it doesn’t matter. This is no attempt to genuinely arrive at a fair plan for how the UK should address the global refugee crisis.