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Does the policy of deterring asylum seekers actually work?


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With a recent inspection revealing the squalor in which refugees are housed when they reach the United Kingdom, the ensuing closure of Penally barracks but the continued operation of Napier, and yet more deterrent policies being trailed this morning, I thought I would share some thoughts from my book Welcome to Britain on this whole idea of deterring refugees. What follows is based on an extract from Chapter 6, all about the UK asylum system, written early in 2020. There’s more in that chapter and other chapters covering all other aspects of the immigration, asylum and citizenship system.

To make themselves seem reasonable and compassionate, politicians like to distinguish between “genuine” and “bogus” – or deserving and undeserving – refugees. Genuine refugees are supposedly to be welcomed and given sanctuary, whereas the bogus ones are to be prevented from arriving in the first place, or otherwise promptly expelled if they do somehow sneak in. In reality, politicians do everything possible to exclude all refugees from entering the United Kingdom, no matter how much they need protection. There are two main strands to the policy: deterrence and prevention.

History of deterrent asylum policies

The essence of the policy of deterrence is to make life as miserable as possible for the refugees who do reach the UK, in the hope that this will somehow deter others from following suit. The idea is to eliminate the “pull” factors that attract asylum seekers to come to the UK in preference to other countries, as evidenced by the build-up of migrants and refugees at Calais and along the French side of the English Channel. Asylum seekers were stripped of the right to claim mainstream benefits or housing back in the 1990s, a food voucher system was briefly introduced in 1999, and even though this was scrapped after a campaign led by trade union leader Bill Morris, the meagre support available has been essentially frozen for years. The current level of support at the time of writing in 2020 is £37.75 per migrant per week. [It is now £39.63.] The system of “dispersing” asylum seekers around the country was also introduced in 1999 and continues to this day. Accommodation is provided by private contractors, is sometimes squalid and is located far away from established communities of compatriots.

Asylum seekers are also banned from working or studying or even undertaking voluntary work, and yet their cases are put on hold – sometimes for years. The benefits of the status granted to recognised refugees have also been repeatedly downgraded with, for example, the legal status granted to refugees being made less and less secure. Family reunion is prevented for children and is made as difficult as possible for adults, with government funding for DNA tests withdrawn in 2012. Almost overnight, the refusal rate for Somali family reunion applications shot from just 17% to 80%, with the refusal rates for Eritrean, Sudanese, Syrian and Iranian applications all trebling. A system of accelerated “fast track” asylum decision-making was introduced, with asylum seekers detained in the initial and sometimes even the appeal stages of their claims. A massive building programme for immigration detention centres was launched (see Chapter 11). Legislation was also introduced to criminalise asylum seekers who were thought to have destroyed their documents, and to encourage judges to reject claims based on ill-founded stereotypes of how a “genuine” refugee might be expected to behave, a point to which I return at the end of this chapter. Eventually, as discussed in Chapter 3, the whole hostile environment policy was developed, with the declared intention of making Britain a less welcoming destination for unauthorised migrants.

Perhaps the single most stark example of deterrence came with the refugee crisis that was sparked by the civil war in Syria. Baroness Anelay, who was minister of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs in 2014, stated in Parliament on behalf of the government:

We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.

UIN HL1977, answered on October 2014

This was the “let them drown” policy. The UK soon relented and did end up assisting with search and rescue, sending boats to help in the operation, but the first instinct of the government had been to deter some refugees from setting out in boats by letting others drown.

Does deterrence work?

If the purpose of deterrence was to dissuade refugees from coming to the UK, this was all an epic failure of evidence-based policy making. It focused on the “pull” factors supposedly attracting refugees to the United Kingdom but ignored the “push” factors that cause them to leave their own war-torn countries in the first place. As poet Warsan Shire puts it, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”. Even aside from this fundamental flaw, there was never any evidence base to suggest that the supposed pull factors really influenced refugees in the first place. None of the available research suggests that refugees decide which country to come to on the basis of how they are treated when they arrive, or even what dangers they might face along the way.

In Deciding Where to go: Policies, People and Perceptions Shaping Destination Preferences, researchers Heaven Crawley and Jessica Hagen-Zanker write that “destination preferences”, as they put it, are rarely shaped by the deterrent or other migration policies of receiving countries. Rather, they found that decision-making is shaped by a wide range of factors including “access to protection and family reunification, the availability / accuracy of information, the overall economic environment and social networks”. The Home Office already knew this, having commissioned a piece of research back in 2002 entitled Understanding the Decision-Making of Asylum Seekers, which reached similar findings. The researchers found that there was “very little evidence that the sample respondents had a detailed knowledge of: UK immigration or asylum procedures; entitlements to benefits in the UK; or the availability of work in the UK”.

It is true that some refugees, once they are on the move, seek prosperous countries in which to settle and rebuild their lives. It is possible to be both a genuine refugee and also an economic migrant at the same time. In fact, though, the majority of refugees stay close to the homes from which they have fled. There are around 30 million refugees in the world today and 80% of them live in refugee camps in countries neighbouring their own. There is little to do in these camps and some do not want to subsist only on handouts from the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Most asylum seekers are refugees and will get to stay

The narrative of the “bogus asylum seeker” – the idea that asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq and Zimbabwe, amongst other places, were liars who did not need or deserve our protection – was allowed to develop or perhaps even encouraged in the 1990s and early 2000s. This enabled politicians to feign concern for the genuine refugees, while simultaneously doing everything possible to deter and prevent their arrival. The majority of asylum claims in this climate were assumed to be fraudulent and that assertion was seemingly supported by their low success rate. But it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, a classic example of circular logic: the low rate of success was a result of the culture of disbelief, and the culture of disbelief was itself founded on that same low success rate. Cynicism directed at asylum seekers also ignored the reasons that at least some were being refused asylum. When claims failed, it was often for legal reasons rather than because the asylum seeker was thought to be lying. For example, it might be said that there was still a safe area in their country of origin, that they had travelled through a safe country to reach the UK or that the Refugee Convention did not apply to them.

In fact, the refusal rate has gradually fallen over time and many of the palpably perverse decisions I have highlighted are not recent ones. In the early 1980s, when the number of asylum claims was running at around 3,000 per year, the success rate was as high as 87%. A decade later, after a dramatic increase, there were around 30,000 asylum claims made in the United Kingdom per year and the success rate was just 4%. Yet, today, with the numbers having shot up in the early 2000s but then fallen back to between 20,000 to 30,000 over the past ten years, the Home Office grants status in 38% of initial decisions. Once appeal outcomes are taken into account the total is around 55%. [These figures have actually increased since I wrote Welcome to Britain and more than three out of four asylum seekers are now recognised as refugees.]

So, most of the asylum seekers who do manage to reach the United Kingdom are actually genuine refugees. But you would not know this from the pronouncements of politicians or from more general public attitudes. The rhetoric surrounding the relatively small numbers of Channel crossings is a case in point. Around 1,900 asylum seekers made this dangerous crossing in 2019 and most were reported to be Iranian nationals. Iran is ruled by a repressive regime that treats political dissidents and ethnic and religious minorities with brutality. “We will send you back”, was the response of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “If you come illegally, you are an illegal migrant and, I’m afraid, the law will treat you as such”.

None of this is true. Refugees are protected from prosecution for illegal entry by Article 31 of the Refugee Convention and by section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The reality is that 63% [now 80%] of Iranian asylum seekers are granted refuge in initial decisions by the Home Office, and many more win their appeals against refusal. Most are genuine refugees and only a tiny percentage are sent back either to France or to Iran. And actually, with the UK’s departure after Brexit from the Common European Asylum System, the set of laws that enables the UK to remove asylum seekers to other EU countries, future returns to France or other EU countries will become virtually impossible.

The real effect of deterrence

Studies have shown that Somali refugees in the United States and Canada end up far better integrated into the workforce, and with far better economic outcomes in terms of wages, than those in the United Kingdom. There is something that the UK is doing, or perhaps not doing, that actually holds back refugees and prevents them from integrating. For plain reasons of geography, most refugees in the US and Canada are resettled there rather than being spontaneous arrivals. They therefore do not experience the deliberately inflicted indignities of the asylum process in their new country. The same is true of refugees arriving through resettlement schemes in the UK, who are welcomed with comprehensive and ongoing assistance in finding accommodation and employment and accessing local services like a doctor and a school. This support stands in stark contrast to those refugees who arrive irregularly without prior permission. The asylum procedure itself is incomprehensible, prolonged and degrading.

It gets little better once refugee status is granted. Children cannot be joined by their parents even once they are recognised as refugees, forcing them into local authority care. The handover from Home Office support as an asylum seeker to local authority support as a recognised refugee is virtually non-existent. Housing and welfare support is simply withdrawn by the Home Office with 28 days’ notice; the refugee is expected to fend for him- or herself and, if without resources, work out how to access local authority assistance alone. Many are made homeless as a result.

The main justification for these deliberately harsh policies is that they reduce the supposed pull factors that are said to make the United Kingdom an attractive destination for refugees. Politicians like to talk about these pull factors because they are something ministers themselves can control; legislating to cut off the right to work, reducing benefits and so on, makes it seem as if the politician has some concrete answer to, and control over, the perceived problem of refugee numbers. However, the research shows that country-specific pull factors have very little, if any, influence on refugees. The legislators are kidding both themselves and the public and are therefore setting unachievable expectations. The only real consequence is that refugees like my clients are so traumatised and exhausted by the pro- cess that it is no surprise they struggle to adapt to life in the United Kingdom afterwards. The deterrent policies the government has introduced since the late 1990s leave both them and their children deliberately and permanently disadvantaged.

If politicians were honest and open about the fact that most asylum seekers arriving in the UK are now genuine refugees, this might start to shift public attitudes. The majority will ultimately be allowed to stay in the UK anyway and it is time to start recognising that truth. Once they are allowed to remain, do we want them to be isolated, disadvantaged and perhaps even resentful because of their harsh and inhumane treatment on and after arrival? If we were less hostile and more respectful, it is likely that they would find it easier to integrate and build new lives for themselves when they are allowed to stay, which, in turn, might help to shift negative public opinion.

If you would like to read more from Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System you can order a copy from your lovely local bookshop, from the publishers Biteback or from Amazon and other internet retailers.

There’s lots wrong with our asylum, immigration and citizenship laws. If you want to be properly informed, check out my book Welcome to Britain, now available in paperback.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Colin Yeo

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder of the Free Movement immigration law website.