Memo to the Home Office: a little humanity goes a long way | Kenan Malik

Delivering migrants to an offshore location is more about spectacle than solution

Dump them on Ascension Island. Or in Moldova. Imprison them in disused ferries. Build “marine fences” across the Channel. Deploy water cannons to make huge waves to swamp their boats.

And so it goes on. All apparently ideas from Home Office “brainstorming” sessions on how to deal with asylum seekers and cross-Channel undocumented migrants.

There is little new about many of these ideas. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s government put Tamil asylum seekers on an old ship in Harwich. In 2004, Tony Blair offered Tanzania an extra £4m aid if it would build an “asylum camp” for Somalis seeking refuge in Britain. The previous year, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, had floated the idea of using offshore holding centres, a proposal welcomed by the EU.

It was Australia that pioneered policies of “offshoring” asylum seekers with its notorious camps on Manus and Nauru. And it has been the EU that has taken such policies to another level. Home secretary Priti Patel is following a long, sordid tradition.

The brainstorming ideas are more about spectacle than solutions. Despite the hysteria over cross-Channel migrants, the numbers of asylum seekers are lower this year (largely because of Covid-19). The real crisis is in the response – the failure to assess claims quickly enough, the creation of a huge backlog, thousands being locked up for months on end.

But Patel wants to be seen to be doing something. And that means branding migrants as so unwelcome they cannot set foot in this country.

But here’s a thought for the next Home Office brainstorm. How about treating migrants as human beings and, as economist Jonathan Portes put it, processing asylum claims quickly and humanely? Less of a spectacle, but it might even work.

• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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Kenan Malik

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