Suella Braverman is being urged to reduce the number of asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats by creating a new “humanitarian visa” that would cap numbers and create a legal avenue for accessing the UK.
Rishi Sunak has made tackling Channel crossings one of his five priorities since entering Downing Street, despite concerns among his own ministers that it is not within his power to stop boats attempting the dangerous journey. The government is scrambling to examine a series of controversial measures that could be included in a forthcoming immigration bill, aimed at automatically blocking those who come to the UK on small boats from seeking asylum.
However, a growing cross-party group of political figures is backing a new specialised visa that would allow 40,000 people a year to seek asylum. The proposal has been drawn up by the independent thinktank British Future. It said that rather than ratcheting up expectations and rhetoric, a new visa stream would make asylum case processing and safe returns “faster and fairer”, while also saving money on hotel accommodation created by a backlog of cases.
The plan would see a visa made available to anyone with a strong asylum claim or links to the UK, issued at British consulates at locations away from the French and Belgian coasts.
Last year saw a huge increase in the number of people making the perilous journey across the Channel. A total of 45,756 people made the trip, up from just 1,900 in 2019. At least 50 people have drowned or are missing, including 32 people who died when a boat capsized in November 2021.
Asylum processing delays are now severe. At the end of September, just 7% of asylum applicants were processed within a six-month period. The bill for emergency hotel accommodation for asylum seekers, who are not allowed to work while their case is processed, is currently £5.6m a day.
Labour MP Stephen Timms said the government’s current plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was “wrong in principle and unworkable in practice”. He added: “To stop dangerous Channel crossings, we will need a safe route to allow people who need protection to come to Britain safely.”
Tim Farron, the former Lib Dem leader, said: “We cannot carry on with an asylum system that forces people to risk their lives seeking safety. There needs to be a safe way for people to get to the UK.”
Samuel Kasumu, the former Downing Street adviser to Boris Johnson, said he welcomed the proposals “as someone that was involved in the government’s response to the Windrush scandal”. He added: “The need for reforming our asylum system has never been greater. I agree that the challenge we face is not unfixable, and both control and compassion must be at the heart of our immigration strategy.”
Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future and co-author of the report, said the current number of dangerous journeys was “nobody’s idea of a safe or effective asylum system”.
“Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman threatening to detain and deport everyone who crosses the Channel is just one more impossible promise they won’t keep,” he said. “Politicians keep chasing headlines and seeking scapegoats but have failed to come up with a proper plan for an orderly, workable and humane system. What we need are real-world policies that can actually happen and will make a difference.”
The move comes with a new immigration bill expected to be published within weeks as Sunak attempts to meet his pledge to “stop the boats”. So far, ministers have been examining reforms that are fraught with legal complications, such as stopping asylum seekers who cross the Channel in small boats from appealing against their deportation. Officials have raised the threat of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights as a nuclear option, but such a move would split the party.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Nobody should put their lives at risk by taking dangerous and illegal journeys, and we will shortly introduce new legislation to ensure that anyone entering the UK illegally is detained and swiftly returned home or to a safe third country.
“Those who fear persecution should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. We are also developing comprehensive plans to tackle and reduce the asylum backlog, including clearing outstanding claims made prior to 28 June 2022 by the end of the year.”