Lauren Crosby Medlicott reports on Rishi Sunak’s new law banning people entering the UK ‘illegally’ from claiming asylum or re-entering in the future
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With Rishi Sunak’s most recent headline-grabbing statement that he would refuse asylum to those entering the UK via the Channel in small boats, leading political parties have offered their own views on how they plan to fix the UK’s ‘broken’ asylum system.
The Government has clearly stated through a series of policy proposals what its plans are: stop the boats from coming and keep asylum seekers out. It plans to send asylum seekers to remote islands, has pushed for a ‘pushback’ policy to return migrant boats in the Channel to France, and dreamed up ways to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
The latest new laws set to be announced by the Prime Minister will, he says, stop people entering the UK on small boats from claiming asylum. “Make no mistake, if you come here illegally, you will not be able to stay,” he has said.
But for Louise Calvey, an independent refugee and asylum specialist, the announcement is “nauseating” because “a human’s right to seek sanctuary is one of the oldest and most established principles of decency”.
Seeking sacntuary is also part of the United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
In response to the Prime Minister’s statement, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said that Labour would “drop the gimmicks and focus on three different things”. He believes the UK should speed up the decision time on applications, send people back immediately when their claims have failed, and smash criminal gangs.
Labour Leader Keir Starmer said that “the problem” of people crossing the Channel “has got to be dealt with” and the UK “should beef-up the National Crime Agency to deal with this” and “speed up the processing”.
The Green Party has offered a solution to the dangerous boat crossings that so many asylum charities have been calling on for years – safe, legal routes to claim asylum in the UK. Its immigration policy affirms the right of asylum seekers to claim protection over any right of the state to exclude aliens.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have broadly said that it would “scrap the Conservatives’ Hostile Environment policy” and “save free movement”, although its policy is sparse and lacks practical ways to achieve this.
While politicians in Westminster debate the hotly contested topic of asylum, the country has become increasingly swept up with rhetoric spouted out in the media and by politicians about how asylum seekers are ‘invading’ Britain’s shores.
“The media hasn’t helped,” Benali Hamdache, migrant and refugee support spokesperson for the Green Party told Byline Times. “No proportion is given to the numbers of people coming to the shores, which are not substantially bigger than previous years. Indeed, many other European countries are doing much more to support those in need. That information is missing from the reportage.”
“I think there are two ways in which people are controlled”, former Labour Cabinet minister Tony Benn once said. “First of all, frighten people and secondly, demoralise them.”
This is what Sue Lukes, a migration specialist, believes is happening. “Asylum seekers are being used to frighten people,” she said. “The highhandedness, abuse of the rule of law and corruption demoralise them.”
Regardless of party affiliation or views about those seeking asylum, it is clear that the UK asylum system needs a rehaul, especially considering that forced migration will only increase in years to come as the climate emergency continues.
Channel crossings increased again in 2022, processing centres have become overcrowded, hotels are being used in house asylum seekers for months, child asylum seekers are going missing, and the backlog of asylum applications have reached record highs.
What can most, if not all the political parties agree on, when it comes to finding solutions that will turn the tide on the asylum system?
“The problem of irregular crossings is tricky to fix,” said Calvey. “There are no quick wins or magic bullets.”
In 2022, there were more than 45,000 people who came to the UK in small boats. The Refugee Council found that at least six out of 10 of those who made the crossing would be recognised as refugees once their claims were processed.
To keep people from making the dangerous journey across the Channel, Calvey said there needs to be long-term vision, rather than the harsh-sounding, fast-action solutions offered by Priti Patel, and now Sunak and Suella Braverman.
“It requires a functioning asylum system in the UK, and a global effort to provide properly planned, managed, safe routes,” said Calvey.
However, this solution, along with long-term planning for preventing forced migration, is only clearly being offered by the Green Party, which has one MP in Parliament.
“I wish more colleagues looked at helping prevent forced migration,” Hamdache said. “We should be working together with our European neighbours for a genuinely progressive migrant pact. Instead, governments will only focus on the short-term and will spend money on militarising the Channel and imprisoning refugees, ignoring our moral debt to those who come to these shores.”
There is very little cross-party support when it comes to solving the problem of small boat crossings, with political parties outlining slightly to hugely different plans, all with varying levels of clarity. However, a new ‘humanitarian visa’ has been proposed by a growing cross-party group of political figures.
The specialised visa, drawn up by the independent think tank British Future, would allow 40,000 people a year to seek asylum. It would see a visa made available to anyone with a strong asylum claim or links to the UK, issued outside of the UK at British consulates.
“I personally don’t support the calls for humanitarian visas,” said Calvey. “I wouldn’t trust these to be executed right and I worry about how long they would take to be issued, how would people be supported while their application is granted, how would they get to a visa processing centre, and how would they get a legal representative if that was refused.”
However, Calvey said that if the Government could work with asylum specialists to ensure vulnerable people wouldn’t be left waiting in dangerous situations, they she would cautiously offer it support.
What there is consensus on is that the huge backlog of unprocessed asylum claims in the UK must be reduced.
“There are over 130,000 people waiting for an initial decision from the Home Office, and over 60,000 of them have been waiting for a year or more for that first decision,” said Lukes. “The current problem is the backlog of claims and the urgent need is for good quality speedy decision making by the Home Office.”
Every major party agrees with Lukes and there is some consensus about what can be done to fix it. Sunak said last year that the Government had increased the number of processing officials by 80%, with another 500 to be appointed by March.
It is a seemingly good solution but shortly after Sunak’s comments it was revealed that some of these recruits were hired from customer service and sales positions at McDonald’s, Tesco and Aldi.
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“There is broad cross-party and public support for giving asylum seekers the right to work while they wait for a decision on their claim,” said Lauren Starkey, a social worker and anti-trafficking campaigner. “Allowing asylum seekers the right to work would support their integration into communities; would allow them the dignity of work; would reduce the hold of exploiters and criminal gangs; and would reduce the amount spent by the government on asylum support.”
She said that the current asylum accommodation crisis is not a result of increased arrivals, as the public has been led to believe, but due to the enormous backlog in processing people’s claims. “By giving people the right to work, more would be able to move on from asylum accommodation and hotels, which would reduce the flashpoints for local tensions,” she added.
Calvey told Byline Times that getting rid of the backlog is straightforward as it “just requires will” and that “the vast majority of people waiting an asylum decision are from objectively dangerous situations” and so should be given asylum and employment status.
“It’s a small number and we desperately need more people working,” Calvey said. “It’s so utterly counter-productive to have people wasting their lives in hotels, at huge cost to us, banned from working. Give them status, clear the backlog and stop wasting lives and money.”
Zoe Gardner, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, is sceptical about the timing of Rishi Sunak’s asylum announcements. For her, the Government’s aim is to “whip up hatred in a desperate attempt to save their plummeting poll ratings”.
Can parties come together to decide on sensible solutions for the asylum system that will actually benefit both the British people and vulnerable individuals desperate for safety?
“Asylum seekers are about hope,” added Lukes. “They face unimaginable dangers sustained by the hope that they will reach safety, and hoping and believing that the UK is a country that respects law and human rights.”
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