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A tiered asylum system, restricting entry to the UK, and failing “legal” routes


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Over the last few days refugees have hit the headlines once again. Amongst other things, there has been talks of a two-tier asylum system, and it was reported that the Home Office’s Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS) has not yet accepted and evacuated anyone from Afghanistan. Suella Braverman’s forward to a controversial report that threatens collective responsibility and human rights was also published yesterday. But is there anything new that can be taken from all this press?

A two-tiered asylum system: fast-track processing

Announced in The Times on Saturday were the government’s latest plans to clear the asylum backlog: a two-tiered asylum system. Those entering the UK via the Channel, having travelled from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, would have their claims fast-tracked. There would no longer be a requirement for caseworkers to carry out follow-up interviews and assessments after the initial security and identity checks were complete.

A thorough and successful decision-making process for all asylum claims does not (and indeed should not) require the same amount of time in all cases. A rapid, affirmative asylum process could be used for those from countries with very high asylum success rates, such as Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, all with a 98% success rate over the last year according to the latest stats. Once nationality is established, so too would be asylum. Other countries could be added when there is a crisis, as with Iran at the moment. Colin suggested as much last week, in fact.

Fast-track returns

There are questions over whether fast-track returns would take precedence over fast-track processing. And there are worries that fast-track returns may ignore the factors that lead to exploitation and trafficking, subsequently increasing the risk of unsafe journeys.

The immigration minister, Robert Jenrick, indicated that he was considering how the Home Office treated people on arrival, particularly where they have entered illegally. As a result, discission around Albanian nationals entering the UK has continued over the weekend, along with excluding people from countries regarded as safe, such as Albania, from the right to claim asylum at all. Albania is currently on the ‘safe list’ for refugee claims. But so is Ukraine. The list is not currently up to date or accurate. We have talked more about how a revived asylum ‘white list’ might work here. For now, the ever-changing nuances and individuality of each asylum case and each country should not be forgotten. Country information and guidance cases show how the UK has continued to take an individualised approach to refugee determination which, in general, has led to fairer decisions, including for people from less well-known places of displacement.

There is a cause-and-effect element missing from some debates and fast-tracking removals may mean that some nuances are at risk of being missed. Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Economic migrants from Albania are therefore expected. But poverty is also a major driver of trafficking, exploitation and instability in general.

Trafficking happens in the shadows. That is as true in Albania, as it is in the UK. The difference between the UK and Albania is the reports that the Albanian authorities show potential complicity with the gangs they claim to be tackling. This creates a breakdown between victims and the authorities and people are subsequently at risk of being denied protection or being put at greater risk if they seek help there.

Without properly assessing individual asylum claims, there is a very practical risk of reinforcing the cycle of trafficking and exploitation. This, in turn, strengthens the very gangs that the UK-France deal, amongst other work, is attempting to break up.  

Last week the Home Office belatedly released an internal research report from 2020 which considered the use and success of deterrent tactics. There is plenty to say on this topic but for now it is worth remembering that closing routes when there are no safe alternatives just forces people into making longer and more dangerous journeys, often whilst being exploited further. Many asylum seekers are unable to ‘choose’ a destination country due to the influence of organised crime networks, or because they have been trafficked. You can’t deter someone from reaching the UK if they don’t know they are coming here. The report suggested that restrictive asylum policies benefited trafficking gangs. But this is not new rhetoric.

Failing “legal” routes

At the Home Affairs Select Committee hearing last month, Braverman cited the Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme (ACRS) as one of the safe and legal routes to claim asylum in the UK. So far, the UK has failed to resettle anyone as part of the ACRS.

A report in The Guardian confirms that only five to eight staff are working on the scheme, compared to 540 on the Ukraine scheme. By way of reminder, the quarterly statistics released last month confirmed that the Ukraine visa scheme routes, alongside the Hong Kong BN(O) route, have contributed to 45% of the increase in net migration seen in the past year. Sources in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) have said that “there’s no sense Afghanistan is any kind of priority”.

The FCDO said that consultations are still ongoing about which groups can be brought to the UK. One report published on the back of this news contains information from one official that said “people had died when advice pertaining to the evacuation of Afghanistan had been delayed because [Raab] didn’t like the formatting”.

Capping numbers and restricting entry

On Monday, a report prefaced by Braverman, from the Centre for Policy Studies, called for the UK to set a statutory cap of accepting 20,000 asylum seekers each year. The report was co-authored by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former adviser. It recommended an Australian-style indefinite detention system for all asylum seekers who enter the country “illegally”. It also calls for ministers to legislate to make it impossible to claim asylum in the UK after travelling from a safe country.

The UNHCR has said that many of the proposals in the report would be illegal. Indefinite detention, based solely on someone’s mode of arrival, would punish people in need of protection. It would constitute a clear breach of the UK’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

A blanket ban on claiming asylum for those arriving via small boats, for example, would breach the convention because it would result in refugees having no means to establish their status. It places them at risk of enforced return to their own countries. Removal to Rwanda is also still considered a breach of international law, as the UK-Rwanda deal currently stands, and the UHNCR made sure to mention this once again in yesterday’s press briefing. The arrangement simply externalises the UK’s asylum responsibilities. It increases the pressure on frontline states, and it would increase the risk of refugees resorting to dangerous onward journeys.

The UNHCR said that:

“An appropriate response to the increase in arrivals and to the UK’s current asylum backlog would include strengthening and expediating decision-making procedures, ensuring that those without well-founded claims are returned to their own countries; and stepping up cooperation with its European neighbours, including through multilateral transfer systems. Expanding safe, regular pathways for refugees to travel to the UK would also offer real alternatives to dangerous, irregular journeys.

We continue to urge the United Kingdom government to pursue humane and cost-effective measures to ensure that refugees receive the protection they need, while addressing the complex challenges presented by the rise in Channel crossings.”

There are many things that can be picked out and picked apart from the news over the last few days, but there seems to me to be an overarching theme that can be summarised quite simply. One of the most important headlines is The Guardian coverage of the failures in the ACRS scheme. The impact this has had on the ability of individuals to enter the UK safely and legally will be huge. There is an increasing risk of refugees taking dangerous journeys with the potential plans outlined for combating “illegal” routes and because of the failure to prioritise safe and legal routes. Safety at the UK borders, and for those the Home Office claim to assist remains paramount. The Home Office’s focus should be on ensuring that the process(es) is fair and effective for all individuals from all nationalities.

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