The Home Office has presented details of its plan to overhaul the UK asylum system, raising concerns among human rights advocates and posing practical challenges.

On 24 March, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel presented to parliament a New Plan for Immigration which she described as “the most significant overhaul of our asylum system in decades.” Patel said the UK asylum system was “collapsing under the pressure of parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminal smugglers.” However, her new initiative – which as of now remains a political vision without a change of legislation – comes at the time of an historical low of asylum applications in the UK. In 2020, the UK registered 36,041 first time applicants, which should be seen in the context of the growing number of forcibly displaced people across the globe that surpassed 80 million in 2020.

The new proposal envisions a “two-tier” approach based on how a person has arrived to the UK. For people entering through resettlement routes, access to rights would be improved, while everyone arriving irregularly would be disenfranchised: asylum claims of the latter would be deemed inadmissible and their removal from the UK would be pushed; whenever removal is not possible, a new temporary protection status would be granted, linked to regular reassessment for removal, limited access to benefits, and limited family reunion rights. Plans for offshore asylum processes have also circulated.

With few alternatives the majority of refugees in the UK arrives via irregular routes. In 2019, only one in five people who were granted protection had arrived through the government’s resettlement scheme. Thus, genuine refugees who arrive in the UK irregularly will be denied an automatic right to asylum if the proposals are implemented.

The Home Office’s plan has been met with widespread criticism. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has raised concerns over the proposals’ lack of compliance with the Geneva convention and a spokesperson reminded the Home Office that “Anyone seeking asylum should be able to claim in their intended destination or another safe country” adding that “Some claimants have very legitimate reasons to seek protection in specific countries, including family or other links.” Enver Solomon, CEO at the Refugee Council, writes in the Guardian that the new plan “unjustly differentiates between the deserving and undeserving refugee by choosing to provide protection for those fleeing war and terror based on how they have travelled to the UK. Refugees are ordinary human beings who have had to take extraordinary measures to seek safety. They don’t have a choice – the threat to their lives is so great that they have to quickly uproot themselves and find a life elsewhere.”

The numerous controversial aspects of the proposals further include “life sentences for people smugglers and facilitators” and tougher age assessment for child asylum seekers. In the past, asylum seekers have been repeatedly jailed for assisting in piloting dinghies across the channel and experts warn that even under current age assessment processes children are wrongly identified as adults. The Home Office is facing legal action after it emerged that a number of children had been wrongly judged to be adults by social workers recruited by the Home Office to carry out age assessment. In October, a teenager was detained for over a month and threatened with deportation after being wrongly judged to be an adult.

Despite the low numbers of asylum claims, there currently is a huge backlog of pending decisions with more than 60,000 people awaiting the outcome of their asylum procedure. Instead of fixing such shortcomings of the system in place, the new proposals would have the “cruel” effect of leaving traumatised people in a prolonged state of uncertainty, lawyers and charities warn.

The proposals also come with unsolved practical obstacles. Since leaving the EU and thus the Dublin system, the UK lacks the means to return people deemed “inadmissible” and while Patel said: “We are speaking to EU member states right now and having negotiations”, the government has not secured any agreements. How an implementation of off-shore asylum procedures could be practically implemented remains unclear, as well.

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Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.