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The refugee reception crisis in the UK mirrors the situation on the continent


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At the now infamous Manston processing centre in Kent, conditions are dire. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has known for weeks about the situation and did nothing until the media stepped in last week. But the UK is not alone in struggling to provide new arrivals access to safe and legal accommodation and provisions. Across Europe, governments are coming under fire for failing to properly assist asylum seekers entering the continent.

What’s happening across the continent?

The number of asylum applications in Europe has increased over the past year. In July the number of applications lodged reached over 70,000 for the third consecutive month. The number of people registering for temporary protection also reached a total of 236,000. And the continent saw the largest number of unaccompanied minors asking for protection since 2015, with close to 3,700 children arriving so far this year.

Although numbers are still much lower than in 2015, when a peak of 1.2 million Syrian refugees fled to Europe, they have been significantly higher in 2021-2022 than over the previous five years. And this time refugees are not a priority on the EU’s agenda. Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have noticed the biggest increase in asylum requests, but the rest of the block has been relatively unaffected.

Many factors are at play here, including the war in Ukraine and events in Afghanistan. COVID-19 restrictions significantly limited movement for two years but instead of using that time to clear some of the backlog of applications, many governments focused on other policies, especially related to the public health crisis. They now all have to deal with the consequences of application backlogs piled on top of new influxes of asylum seekers.

Belgium, for example, has been failing to meet its legal obligations to provide reception to asylum applicants since October 2021. The result is that asylum seekers in Belgium, including children, are left destitute in the streets of Brussels and there seems to be little political will to do anything to change the situation. So far this year there have been almost 5,000 cases filed against the Belgian Federal Asylum Agency for failing to provide shelter to asylum seekers.

In the Netherlands, courts have found the State and the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers do not meet the European standards for humane reception and ordered immediate changes to be implemented. The case was originally filed because 18,000 asylum seekers were exposed to harmful conditions in emergency centres. Reception conditions had fallen below the minimum standards provided and the centres could also no longer be considered temporary. The court ordered the Dutch Secretary of State to come up with a plan as soon as possible to ensure humane reception conditions. Instead of acting, the government decided to appeal the ruling. But the Court of Appeal refused to grant Dutch authorities a delay and ordered immediate implementation of measures to improve the housing conditions of asylum seekers.

Cooperation between Member States is more limited than in 2015 because the recent influx of migrants is not spread out as evenly across the continent. This has a ripple effect on the UK asylum system; whether the UK is part of the EU or not, it still feels the difference between effective and defective EU policy on issues that affect all neighbouring countries.

Meanwhile, here in the United Kingdom…

A government not meeting deadlines, not improving conditions for vulnerable individuals and courting illegality feels like a very familiar story. In the UK, Braverman has known for weeks that migrants, including families, were being held at Manston for significantly longer than they should be and in dire conditions. She has denied ignoring legal advice on the topic.

Since David Neal’s evidence in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee two weeks ago, the number of migrants at Manston has been reduced to the official maximum capacity of 1,600. The Home Office fixed the overcrowding in less than two weeks. A significant achievement, one may think. Except that of the 2,000+ people released, many were moved haphazardly and some reportedly left to the streets rather than brought to safe, longer-term accommodation.

In the meantime, NGOs and other stakeholders have worked around the clock to raise awareness and help those detained. Detention Action has launched a judicial review claim on the living conditions at Manston; and Bail for Immigration Detainees has launched a claim regarding access to justice, as migrants being held at Manston do not have access to the outside world, including a lawyer.

Similar stories of asylum seekers struggling to access accommodation, legal assistance, and safe conditions in Europe are not hard to come by. And they go beyond those countries that have seen a significant influx in the number of arrivals. There were just over 200 people without accommodation in Ireland in September. And Italy is simply refusing to receive migrants at all. Meloni’s new right-wing government has rejected NGOs’ requests to dock their ships, having rescued migrants in nearby seas. Hundreds of people are now stranded. Some have been stuck on rescue boats for over two weeks only a few miles from land.

What could the UK government do differently?

The UK government could be doing a lot differently. Domestic law and regulations could have other priorities. There could (one might be tempted to say “should”) be a new budget to create more adequate accommodation, or real efforts to clear the asylum application backlog that goes beyond pointing fingers at the previous government or refugees themselves.

Instead of stepping up and filling the policy void created by EU deadlock, the UK government has decided to deal with an increase in asylum applications by attempting and failing to deter migrants from crossing the Channel. That is a choice, the consequences of which are embarrassing, even if they similar to reactions across Europe.

Despite what the media says, it is not necessarily the high numbers of applications, lack of accommodation or even lack of resources that lead to the crisis we are seeing in Manston and across the UK now. If over six million pounds a day can be spent on hotel accommodation, and millions more on a fever dream of an offshore detention centre in Rwanda, the only cause for what’s happening today is a lack of political will to make significant and achievable changes.

It seems that only widespread media attention and the threat of court action have forced Braverman to take action. Even that limited action, as we have seen in the media, is so far unsatisfactory. The issues hitting the headlines in the UK are stories that seem to be echoed across the continent. Now it’s time for the UK to change the narrative.

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Charlotte Rubin

Charlotte Rubin (@rubinwrites) is a writer and advisor at Seraphus, an expert immigration law firm and partner of Free Movement. She previously studied international human rights law, and worked to help people in immigration detention. She writes about identity, migration, language, law, culture, and the intersections between all of the above.