The claims of more than 4,500 asylum seekers, including Afghans, have been put on hold while the Home Office seeks readmission agreements with EU member states. The number of people waiting for an initial asylum decision is up 73%, leaving 70,905 people with pending cases, despite an decrease in applications. The resettlement scheme for 20,000 Afghans is criticised as hypocritical against the backdrop of government attempts to discourage and criminalise Afghans arriving irregularly.

The claims of over 4,500 asylum seekers, including Afghans, have been put on hold while the Home Office assesses whether they can be deported to Europe. Under Home Secretary Priti Patel’s new asylum reforms, claims are put on hold for six months to determine whether the applicant travelled through an EU country. If confirmed, the government will seek to return them there. The UK has not however succeeded in striking any agreements to replace the Dublin Regulation after leaving the EU. A number of EU member states, including Belgium, the Netherlands and France, have confirmed that no such deals are currently being negotiated. Of the 4,561 people facing an admissibility-related delay, only seven have been found to be inadmissible and none have been returned. The head of ECRE member the British Refugee Council, Enver Solomon, said: “it’s clear that the government’s inadmissibility rules are clearly not working and are simply adding further delay, cost and human misery to the asylum system.”

In total, 70,905 people are waiting for an initial asylum decision in the UK. This figure is up 73% on the past two years – despite a decline in the number of applicants – and is nine times higher than the number waiting in 2011. According to the British Refugee Council, the number of people waiting a year or more increased tenfold between 2010 and 2020.  The average waiting time is between one and three years. The country received 26,900 asylum claims in the twelve months prior to March 2021, considerably less than the 122,000 received by Germany or the 94,000 received by France during the same period. Per capita, the UK ranks 17th amongst European countries for the number of applicants.

More than 3,000 of the asylum seekers currently in limbo are Afghans. Humanitarian groups say the government’s rhetoric on helping Afghans is at odds with its asylum processing practices, including the recent decision to delete official guidance used to decide applications. Tim Naor Hilton, head of ECRE member organisation Refugee Action, said: “as this government loudly proclaims its generosity to those fleeing Afghanistan with its limited Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, thousands of Afghans are stuck in the UK’s damaging and dehumanising asylum system right now”. Meanwhile, ministers press ahead with new laws that criminalise asylum seekers arriving by boat or other irregular routes and allow the government to refuse to consider their claims. Figures show that Afghans make up the fourth-largest group of those crossing the English Channel.

In response to Afghanistan’s worsening humanitarian crisis, the Home Office has urged Afghans not to flee the countryand head for Britain. “The quid pro quo is that we will offer safe and legal routes.” said Minister Victoria Atkins. Charities and academics however have criticised the government for failing to provide feasible alternatives for regular entry to the country. The Home Office announced ‘Operation Warm Welcome’ at the end of August, a plan to resettle 20,000 Afghans in Britain over five years.  Questions remain however about how refugees will be able to access the scheme given the difficulties in escaping the Taliban-controlled country. The British Refugee Council points out that resettlement supports only a fraction (around 1%) of those in need, and that refugees face a long and uncertain wait to hear if they will ever be able to rebuild their lives in safety. In the 12 months prior to June 2021, just 661 people were resettled in the UK.

An ostensibly independent website discouraging Afghan asylum seekers from attempting journeys to Britain has been revealed to be established and run by the Home Office. The website claims it “provides reliable information to migrants in transit” to help avoid the “dangers of illegal immigration”.  The site tells migrants that the UK “regularly returns people who enter via irregular routes and have no right to be there”, though EU states continue to refuse take-back requests in the absence of post-Brexit agreements. In response to criticism, Home Office said it “made no apology” for discouraging irregular journeys.  ECRE’s member the Scottish Refugee Council describes such hostile tactics to discourage and criminalise people fleeing Afghanistan as “Operation Not Welcome”, a wordplay on the government’s promotion of “Operation Warm Welcome” for future relocated Afghans.

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Photo: (CC) Jeff Djevdet, February 2016