Priti Patel’s New Asylum Prisons

While anger is focused on the brutal Rwanda scheme, the Tories have also quietly announced new 'camps' to house asylum seekers in isolated locations in Britain – yet another attack on people seeking sanctuary.

Home Secretary Priti Patel photographed during a campaign rally event on 2 December 2019 in Colchester, England. (Hannah McKay - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Despite the numerous human rights abuse allegations attached to Greece’s asylum system—or perhaps because elements of the British press not only condone but admire them—the UK government remains committed to adopting policies modelled on those of Greece. The latest step in this direction was the announcement in mid-April of the first of a number of planned ‘migrant reception centres’ near the tiny Yorkshire village of Linton-on-Ouse, one overshadowed by the more sensational plan set to see migrants ‘offshored’ to Rwanda.

The Prime Minister drew attention to the Rwanda scheme again over the weekend, telling the Daily Mail that the first fifty ‘illegal entrants to the UK’ will be there within a fortnight. The scheme remains a source of disbelief to many NGOs and charities—but they are concerned by the domestic plans too, with some arguing that Rwanda serves above all a distractive purpose.

At Refuge Action York, for example, spokesman John Williamson describes how the Linton-on-Ouse camp’s nearest city isn’t readily accessible by public transport. Given the absence of amenities, that makes the site a particularly bad choice of long-term habitat for large numbers of traumatised people fleeing horrors and awaiting life-altering decisions for indefinite periods, leaving them isolated from other human contact.

With the Tories intent on a model of ‘deterrence’, that is perhaps exactly why it was chosen. At Kent Refugee Action Network, which assists asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel on their arrival, spokesperson Bridget Chapman frankly assesses how the remote location once again reflects a government committed to ‘performative cruelty’ as the essence of its asylum policy.

In contrast with Rwanda, Boris Johnson has referred to the Yorkshire plans only passingly, explaining that people who arrive in the UK will be ‘housed in accommodation centres like those in Greece, with the first of these to open shortly,’ rather than in ‘hotels at vast public expense’. But Chapman points out that projects like these usually entail the awarding of a major, multi-billion-pound contract to a private provider, making even this weak justification—saving taxpayer money—nothing more than a show put on for the right-wing media.

A Closer Look at Greece

The same media quickly and enthusiastically adopted the term ‘Greek-style camp’ when describing the disused Linton-on-Ouse RAF base where the Home Office says it will place up to 1,500 ‘single, adult males’. Greece itself has built a series of barbed-wire-enclosed camps in isolated locations, some of which Home Secretary Priti Patel visited last year, and from which she returned lavishing praise.

Since the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine two months ago, Greece’s refugee policy has won praise for its efficiency. But it has also come to epitomise aspects of refugee policy that would be commendable if not so blatantly prejudicial—evidenced by asylum seekers now automatically being categorised as good or bad, ‘real’ or ‘illegal’, depending on country of origin, means of transit, and, implicitly, ethnicity, too. In a report published earlier this month assessing March and April, the Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), Oxfam, and Save the Children, assessed that the Greek government is operating a ‘two-tier refugee response’.

As of 19 April, about 21,000 Ukrainians had fled to Greece, 6,000 of them children. They were given swift, compassionate access to support on multiple levels, encompassing immediate access to the jobs market, medical care, and schooling, along with help with food and finding accommodation—the opposite, in other words, to the obstacles and bureaucratic mazes faced by other asylum seekers. Greece’s policy on Ukrainian refugees contrasts diametrically with the circumstances that led to death of four-year-old Syrian child Ayman Al Saleh, for example, who drowned in mid-March during a ‘pushback’ operation which saw thirty Syrians, including two pregnant women and seven children, forced over a border and confined to an islet on the river Evros in joint action by Greek police and groups of hooded men.

The Syrians were left there without access to food or water for six days. Appeals by charities like GCR and HumanRights360 were ignored until they managed to bring legal pressure on Greece via the European Court of Court of Human Rights (ECHR). And this wasn’t an isolated case—it was one of six over the last two months, all involving groups including children and pregnant women, where deaths were only averted through ECHR pressure.

‘For years, the European Commission has knowingly stood by and watched Greece build a systematic policy of pushbacks and other violent illegal measures at its borders to deter and deny people the right to seek asylum,’ explains Oxfam EU’s migration expert Stephanie Pope. ‘We have now reached a stage where the ECHR must intervene.’ Pope points out that Greece’s National Transparency Agency, charged with investigating evidence of pushbacks, denied the involvement of the Greek coastguard, despite overwhelming evidence from rights groups and alliances of investigative journalists.

Following Suit

On one level, the UK government’s plan to emulate Greece has been curtailed by its failure to gain legal approval for pushbacks. But its Nationality and Borders Act to all purposes enshrines a two-tier asylum system in law.

The government’s visa schemes for fleeing Ukrainians can and should be criticised for their inbuilt inefficiency and life-threatening delays, as they have been in this magazine. The settlement schemes for people fleeing Ukraine are, nevertheless, now effectively the only legal and nominally ‘safe’ routes open for asylum. The government is framing Ukrainians as the only ‘real’ refugees, even if its own research demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of those arriving across the Channel have legitimate asylum claims—and even if ministers have also refused to rule out Ukrainian refugees being sent to Rwanda.

Comparing the differing policies, Chapman cites a case of an Afghan refugee with serious concerns for the safety of a relative at risk because of previous work at a women’s rights organisation in Afghanistan who is now no longer able to access a ‘safe’ route for UK asylum. There are other Afghans in this situation, she explains. When writing to MPs about relatives at risk, those petitioning on their behalf now receive little more than a generic letter explaining that the country’s resettlement scheme has been concluded, even if risk to people’s lives remain very high.

If they do make it here, the dangers faced by the asylum seekers who will be housed in the new Linton-on-Ouse camp are many. A petition against it, signed by nearly 4,000 people—around four times the number of local townspeople—cites everything from the absence of consultation or feasibility assessment to a lack of amenities and infrastructural problems to the probability of damage to the mental health of those housed there, with knock-on consequences likely. It also notes protests and suicide attempts documented at similar, smaller camps at Napier Barracks and Penally, and the risk of abuse and violence toward both asylum seekers and workers that far-right groups pose to a centre unshielded by perimeter fencing.

In half-following Greece’s suit, Britain now has the unenviable distinction of an asylum system that is two-tiered on the basis of nationality but universally dysfunctional, serving, ultimately, none of those seeking asylum here. The answer, of course, is not to scapegoat any one group of desperate people for the parallel desperation of another. It is to fight for non-discriminatory policies that operate on a genuine basis of international responsibility, and offer real refuge and compassion to all those fleeing war or persecution. Anything less is not enough.