Home secretaries from both main parties have scapegoated asylum seekers in attempts to endear themselves to voters in recent decades. But none with the fervour of Priti Patel, who in her two-year tenure at the Home Office has announced a series of initiatives to put people off seeking asylum in the UK. Wave machines in the Channel, flying asylum seekers to inhospitable islands thousands of miles away to be processed, criminalising those who rescue people drowning at sea: all are recent measures proposed by the home secretary regardless of their compatibility with international law and Britain’s moral obligations.
Patel gives the impression that there is an escalating crisis in terms of the numbers of people arriving in the UK and trying to illegitimately claim refuge. This is not true. There is absolutely a crisis for asylum seekers trying to reach British shores by making the treacherous Channel crossing in small boats and dinghies. The British government should be doing all it can to clamp down on the people traffickers making a fortune by charging desperate people to attempt the crossing. But the number of people coming to the UK to claim asylum fell by 4% last year and stands at less than half what it was in the early 2000s. Britain receives a fraction of the asylum applications of Germany and France and fewer per resident than the EU average. Low-income countries host nine out of 10 displaced people worldwide.
What has happened is that the flow of people has been made more visible by the pandemic; the number reaching the UK by air has dropped steeply, which has pushed people to attempt the Channel crossing. Patel has wrongly claimed that 70% of those arriving on small boats are “not genuine asylum seekers”, but data shows that two-thirds have been granted refugee status. No system will be immune to people without a legitimate claim attempting to seek asylum, but the best approach is to process applicants quickly and fairly and return those for whom there is genuinely no risk to their home countries.
Instead, Patel has sought to over-egg the idea that Britain faces an unsustainable crisis of people arriving to try to claim asylum in bad faith and that the best way of reducing Channel crossings, or any attempt to reach the UK to claim asylum, is to make Britain as inhospitable as possible for those fleeing their homes, often in fear for their lives. This is surely why the Home Office refuses to release its research on why people travel to the UK to claim asylum, as we report.
Thanks to 30 years of anti-asylum measures taken by successive governments, Britain is already an overwhelmingly hostile place for asylum seekers. Those fleeing persecution and torture are forced to subsist on less than £5.50 a day – less than in France – and are not allowed to work while their claims are being processed, unlike in many other countries, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by criminals. They are often housed in damp, dirty and vermin-infested conditions or disused army barracks. Many are trapped in this limbo for years thanks to long delays in the system. Unaccompanied and traumatised children are put up in hotels in Kent with virtually no adult care or supervision; some fall prey to county lines grooming gangs and traffickers.
Asylum seekers still try to reach the UK in modest numbers, some because they have family here, others because they already speak English. Making the material conditions once they get here even worse is unlikely to put off people fleeing conflict who are desperate to reach somewhere where they can build a new life.
That has not stopped Patel putting new measures to parliament in the nationality and borders bill. They include the forcible return of boats to France, removing the £38 a week for those who arrive by any other route other than a government settlement scheme, housing asylum seekers in large reception centres, scrapping the appeals system, despite the Home Office’s dire track record on decision-making and offshoring the processing of asylum seekers in the same way that Australia has done, to international condemnation. Many of these measures break international maritime law and the 1951 refugee convention and would be subject to legal challenge. Patel just last week claimed to be negotiating with Albania regarding the offshoring and processing of asylum seekers who are Britain’s responsibility; Albanian government officials have dismissed this as “fake news”.
It is not only Britain, of course. We live in a world where rich nations increasingly shun their obligations for political reasons, even as climate change will boost irregular migrations and levels of abject poverty are worsened through cuts to international aid. Rather than take a co-operative approach, the EU has left poorer countries on Europe’s borders to deal with far larger flows of people than the UK has ever seen. It has struck deals with unsavoury despots in Turkey and failed states such as Libya to keep people away from Europe’s shores in contravention of their human rights. The product of this approach is evident in the tragedy unfolding on Poland’s border with Belarus, where desperate Syrians are freezing to death as a result of being used as pawns in the dispute between Belarus and the EU.
The world urgently needs renewed moral leadership on asylum and refuge of the sort that led to the creation of the 1951 convention. But we cannot expect it from Priti Patel, who is more interested in using asylum seekers as pawns in the government’s culture war and is thus leading the UK in the charge to the bottom.