A former Australian minister who advocates for a “zero refugee solution” has been appointed to conduct a review of the UK Border Force. The Nationality and Borders Bill, dubbed the “Anti-Refugee Bill” by campaigners, has been rejected by the Welsh and Scottish parliaments. The resettlement of Afghan evacuees remains “unforgivably slow”, with thousands stuck in hotels. The Home Office faces yet another legal challenge, this time for its failure to provide in-person legal advice. Meanwhile, racism perpetrated by a government contractor has gone unregulated.

In response to an increase in Channel crossings over the last year, UK officials are resorting to increasingly reckless “solutions” aimed at preventing arrivals. In a recent report, the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange proposed Ascension Island, a UK army base on Cyprus, and Alderney (Channel Islands) as suitable locations for asylum offshoring. Similar proposals have so far been refused by Ghana, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, Scotland, and Albania. The thinktank, which reportedly has “close links to the government”, also advocates a strategy whereby no-one arriving in Britain by small boat, including genuine refugees, should ever be allowed to settle there. This proposal mirrors Australia’s controversial deterrence policy giving refugees “zero chance” of asylum in Australia. The chair of the thinktank’s trustees is former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer, known for his key role in Australia’s offshore asylum processing policy. Downer has now been appointed by Home Secretary Priti Patel to undertake an independent review of the UK Border Force. The former minister is quoted as saying “My advice to Miss Patel would be to introduce the ‘push-back’ policy without fanfare”. The move has provoked outrage from rights advocates, who point out that the policies Downer promotes have been “comprehensively discredited and criticised for both cruelty and ineffectiveness by the UNHCR and Amnesty International”.

While Downer’s appointment reflects the government’s view of Channel crossings as a political and security problem, NGOs continue to point to the human cost of irregular journeys in the absence of safe routes. According to the Home Office’s own data, two-thirds of asylum seekers arriving by small boats suffer from hypothermia, and hundreds have burns or broken bones. Following a shipwreck in November that claimed the lives of 27 men and women, aid groups say they fear severe winter conditions will result in renewed tragedy. Investigators have disclosed that French authorities almost certainly received distress calls from the boat that sank in December, contradicting French claims that they had not learned of the shipwreck until the following day.

The Nationality and Borders Bill, which has faced forthright criticism for criminalising refugees and shutting down safe routes, continues to await legislative approval before becoming law. On 15 February, the Welsh Parliament refused consent for the bill.  The Welsh Refugee Council celebrated the news, declaring: “Wales is a nation of sanctuary”. On 22 February, the Scottish parliament also voted against the bill by 94 votes to 29. Whilst urging Scotland to refuse legislative consent, SNP minister Neil Gray called the bill “repugnant and regressive”. Gray emphasised that the bill would not address the failings of the UK asylum system, but would rather add unnecessary complexity and punish vulnerable people.

Only 4,000 of the 16,000 people brought to Britain from Afghanistan have so far been transferred to resettlement accommodation. The remaining 12,000 evacuees are housed in hotels, despite homes procured by local authorities for Afghan refugees remaining empty. Campaign group Asylum Matters has condemned the process on housing and resettlement as “unforgivably slow”. Despite the fact that the hotel accommodation is costing 1.2 million GBP daily, the Afghan resettlement minister Victoria Atkins says there is no mechanism to move people on without cutting government support. The minister has urged landlords to offer up accommodation. Tim Naor Hilton, head of ECRE member organisation Refugee Action, said the government has failed “to meet the expectations the British public rightly had” when they “watched Afghans clinging desperately to planes during the fall of Kabul”. According to the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA), Afghans lodged twice as many applications for protection in the EU in 2021 vis-à-vis 2020. The first-instance (excluding appeal decisions) recognition rate for Afghans was 66 per cent last year. Afghans also made up almost half of all asylum-seeking lone minors.

The NGO Women for Refugee Women have brought a court case against the Home Office. Women held at the Derwentside detention centre, a facility that opened on 28 December 2021, are able to access legal advice only over the phone. Given the majority are survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, the charity says this will “exacerbate the difficulties women already face in disclosing their experiences”. The Home Office is also accused of turning a blind eye to a contractor that failed to investigate complaints about racism received two years ago. Staff contracted by Mitie, a firm paid 681 million GBP to escort migrants and run detention centres, have been found to share racist messages on WhatsApp. The Home Office is now investigating the allegations.

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