On 18 April 2021, the government announced its ‘New Plan for Immigration‘, for what will become the Sovereign Borders Bill. It’s actually mostly about asylum, not immigration generally. It’s a long document, but the home secretary has handily provided a foreword summarising the proposals. We’ve gone through her foreword to contextualise her strategy for you.
So in the left-hand column below is the home secretary’s foreword, split into sections. On the right are our views on why her statements are disingenuous, misleading or otherwise not the full facts.
The home secretary's words
“The UK has a proud history of being open to the world. Global Britain will continue in that tradition.
Our society is enriched by legal immigration. We are a better country for it.
We recognise the contribution of those who have come to the UK lawfully and helped build our public services, businesses, culture and communities and we always will.
Historically, yes. But Theresa May as home secretary began building what she called the ‘hostile environment’. This led to the Windrush scandal and the deportation of other Commonwealth citizens. These new proposals double-down on the hostile environment, including HMG’s desire to dramatically reduce the number of asylum-seekers who come here.
“Come to the UK lawfully” − You will see more and more language about ‘legal’ and ‘lawful’ methods and routes, as if this is solves a problem. However, there is no such thing as an illegal route to the UK or an illegal way to seek asylum.
We also take pride in fulfilling our moral responsibility to support refugees fleeing peril around the world.
In 2017, the Guardian said “Britain is one of worst places in western Europe for asylum seekers”, and things have got a lot worse since then.
We take far fewer refugees than the vast majority of European countries. We’ve also just scrapped the 5,000-per-year target for government resettlement.
HMG is, however, supporting community resettlement, where local volunteers do the work to prepare for bringing a refugee here and then look after them, and must raise £9,000. This lifts a burden from HMG’s shoulders.
Since 2015, we have resettled almost 25,000 men, women and children seeking refuge from cruel circumstances across the world – more than any other European country.
This only counts those who come on resettlement schemes, which is a very small part of the asylum story. In 2015-2016, Germany took 1.3 million non-resettled refugees, for example.
Again, the UK has just scrapped the 5,000-per-year target for government resettlement.
Resettlement is fine as far as it goes. However:
- It means people cannot apply for asylum themselves, and not in any specific country (where they may have family). They must hope that they are selected by the UNHCR, yet only a tiny number of people ever get the chance to be resettled.
- It creates a 2-tier asylum system in the UK which does almost everything for one category of newly arrived refugee and a minimal amount for the other (independent) category.
- Resettlement only bring those who have already settled in another country outside of the originating country. For example, focusing only on resettlement means that we could never grant asylum to someone fleeing directly from Syria.
- Resettlement tends to be for families. It is almost impossible to be resettled if you’re an individual, or an older person.
The UK is also slow on resettlement. In 2019 (pre-COVID), on average, UK resettlement took 63 weeks, compared with the 35 weeks previously.
This year we have extended support to British National (Overseas) status holders and their family members threatened by draconian security laws in Hong Kong, creating a new pathway to citizenship for over 5 million people.
This is said almost in the same breath as the above text about refugees. However, the people from Hong Kong won’t be classed as refugees!
And we continue to play our part as the third highest contributor of overseas development aid in the world.
“Tens of thousands of lives are going to be lost as a result of this funding being reduced.”
The UK is part of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. Ranking member countries for aid spending relative to the size of their economies, in 2018 (before these cuts), the UK came fifth after Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway and Denmark.
Behind each statistic lies the story of a person or a family who can look forward to a better future because of the generosity of the British people. We celebrate that.
But these humanitarian measures do not stand alone.
They are part of our overall approach to asylum and immigration.
And to sustain them, that system – all of it – must be a fair one.
This ‘overall approach’ includes a revision of our asylum system which we think is anything but fair. Please judge for yourself based on the commentary in this document and the links we’ve provided.
On Twitter, Richard Burgon, MP (Lab, East Leeds) said of the new proposals:
“Priti Patel’s statement on refugees was one of the vilest statements I’ve heard in Parliament.”
This Government promised to regain sovereignty and we have made immigration and asylum policy a priority.
We have taken back control of our legal immigration system by ending free movement and introducing a new points-based immigration system.
The UK now decides who comes to our country based on the skills people have to offer, not where their passport is from.
That is how we are addressing the need for clear controls on legal immigration.
We agree that illegal immigration should stop. We do not agree that illegal immigration and asylum-seeking can ever be the same thing or should be mentioned in the same breath.
“Sovereignty” – mentioned here and in the name of the forthcoming bill – is wrapped up in the rising levels of isolationism, nationalism and racism that we saw during the run-up to Brexit. That phrase ‘take back control’ was a key part of HMG’s pro-Brexit campaign.
But to properly control our borders we must address the challenge of illegal immigration too.
This Government will address that challenge for the first time in over two decades through comprehensive reform of our asylum system.
Illegal immigration is facilitated by serious organised criminals exploiting people and profiting from human misery.
It is counter to our national interest because the same criminal gangs and networks are also responsible for other illicit activity ranging from drug and firearms trafficking, to serious violent crimes.
And if left unchecked, illegal immigration puts unsustainable pressures on public services.
How on earth do you address illegal immigration by reforming the asylum system? It is critically important to understand that illegal immigration and asylum are totally unrelated. For example, there is no such thing as an ‘illegal asylum-seeker’. It is not a crime to seek asylum, says Amnesty International.
And a webpage from UNHCR (UK) explicitly says:
“There is no such thing as a bogus asylum-seeker or an illegal asylum-seeker… Everybody has a right to seek asylum in another country.”
Yet HMG continually conflates illegal immigration with asylum-seeking.
As for ‘illegal routes’, no mode of transport is illegal if you’re coming to the UK to seek asylum. The British Red Cross explains:
“However you get here, if you’re looking for safety, you’re not breaking the law.”
Once people arrive in the UK, the Red Cross further explains:
“If an economic migrant hides from authorities or overstays their visa, they break UK law. But an asylum seeker has the right to stay in the UK while we process their claim.”
It is also counter to our moral interest, as it means people are put in the hands of ruthless criminals who endanger life by facilitating illegal entry via unsafe means like small boats, refrigerated lorries or sealed shipping containers.
Families and young children have lost their lives at sea, in lorries and in shipping containers, having put their trust in the hands of criminals.
The way to stop these deaths is to stop the trade in people that causes them.
Everyone wants to see an end to people-trafficking. But not every asylum-seeker who comes by dangerous routes is trafficked!
It’s true that many have lost their lives this way. But to ‘stop the trade’, HMG is simply stopping the majority of asylum-seekers from coming here at all.
“Illegal entry” − no mode of transport is illegal if you’re coming to the UK to seek asylum. Once people arrive here, the Red Cross further explains :
“If an economic migrant hides from authorities or overstays their visa, they break UK law. But an asylum seeker has the right to stay in the UK while we process their claim.”
HMG doesn’t seem to understand this, yet it is enshrined in international law.
This is not a challenge unique to the UK, but now we have left the European Union, Global Britain has a responsibility to act and address the problems that have been neglected for too long.
Why on earth does leaving the EU make a difference to whether economic migrants or asylum-seekers can stay?
Leaving the EU has made it more difficult to compare the UK’s performance on asylum as we are no longer included in EU data.
At the heart of our New Plan for Immigration is a simple principle: fairness. Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, not on the ability to pay people smugglers.
It is not fair to deny asylum to the majority just because some come via people-smugglers. Even those who use traffickers may meet all the criteria for claiming asylum here.
Again, the proposals involve a revision of our asylum system which we think is anything but fair. Please judge for yourself based on the commentary in this document and the links we’ve provided.
If you illegally enter the UK via a safe country in which you could have claimed asylum, you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril – as is the intended purpose of the asylum system – but are picking the UK as a preferred destination over others.
Second, you don’t have to stay in the first country where you could have claimed asylum, The UNHCR says so, as quoted in the Guardian:
“There is no blanket rule banning asylum seekers from passing through safe countries to reach the UK… contrary to claims made by the home secretary as she unveiled punishing new immigration proposals… the UNHCR, which serves as the guardian of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol, a piece of international legislation to which the UK is a party, said: ‘It does not “oblige asylum seekers to apply in the first safe country they encounter… Some claimants have very legitimate reasons to seek protection in specific countries, including family or other links’.”
Third, with regard to ‘you are not seeking refuge from imminent peril’. HMG has expressed a strong preference for resettlement over asylum-seekers coming here independently. However, in the UNHCR’s own words, resettlement is from countries where refugees are already living safely, if not well: “[it] involves the relocation of refugees from an asylum country to a third country”. So HMG is contradicting itself.
"Refugees can legitimately make a claim for asylum in the UK after passing through other 'safe' countries."
FullFact with Dr Violeta Moreno-Lax, Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Law, and Founder of the Immigration Law Programme, at Queen Mary University of London
We have a generous asylum system that offers protection to the most vulnerable via defined legal routes. But this system is collapsing under the pressures of what are in effect parallel illegal routes to asylum, facilitated by criminals smuggling people into the UK.
Our ‘generous’ asylum system is one of the least generous in Europe. In 2019, per capita, the UK ranked 19th in Europe for the number of asylum applications granted, after (in order) Greece, Cyprus, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Germany, Iceland, Austria, Spain, Malta, Sweden, Belgium, France, Liechtenstein, Norway, Italy, Finland, Netherlands and Denmark.
“via defined legal routes” − once again, there is no legal or illegal route to seeking asylum. You’re allowed to travel however and wherever you can.
The existence of these parallel routes is deeply unfair as it advantages those with the means to pay traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot.
And because the capacity of our asylum system is not unlimited, the presence of economic migrants – which these illegal routes introduce into the asylum system – inhibits our ability to properly support others in genuine need of protection.
This is frankly a nonsense. It’s not that simple: people driven to flee will do it whether or not they have access to traffickers.
And this statement sounds like ‘those with the means to pay traffickers’ are not refugees at all, but economic migrants (in fact, the very next paragraph goes on to talk about economic migrants). So not only are refugees NOT economic migrants, but also refugees are simply fleeing conflict – there’s no requirement for them to be poor (ie without the means to pay traffickers).
Second, if you come with the assistance of a trafficker, that doesn’t make your asylum application any less valid.
Third, having the means to pay traffickers is hardly an advantage, as they are unscrupulous and have scant regard for people’s safety.
This is particularly true in our court system where we are seeing repeated unmeritorious appeals and claims, often made at the very last minute, which can delay the removal of those – including Foreign National Offenders – with no right to reside in the UK. This can waste significant judicial resources, resulting in delays to the assessment of genuine claims which is to the detriment of vulnerable people.
- We are slow: the BBC reported that in 2019, only 25% of asylum applicants received an initial decision within 6 months, compared with 80% in 2014
- Almost half of all asylum applications (48%) are refused by the Home Office
- And yet, on appeal, the Home Office loses 75% of the time (the Guardian. So it makes poor decisions in the first place.
The British people are fair and generous when it comes to helping those in need. But persistent failure to properly enforce our laws and immigration rules, and the reality of a system that is open to gaming and criminal exploitation, risks eroding public support for the asylum system and those that genuinely need access to it.
We are therefore compelled to act and have three major objectives with these reforms:
A “persistent failure to properly enforce our laws and immigration rules” can only be laid at the feet of HMG and specifically the Home Office.
Firstly, to increase the fairness and efficacy of our system so that we can better protect and support those in genuine need of asylum.
We are also very much in favour of increasing the fairness and efficacy of our asylum system, but these proposals make it worse.
Secondly, to deter illegal entry into the UK, thereby breaking the business model of people smuggling networks and protecting the lives of those they endanger.
It is not illegal to enter the UK as an asylum-seeker, however you come: whether by plane or by train or smuggled by truck, or by ferry or by rowboat. It’s only illegal if you don’t declare, on arrival, that you’re seeking asylum.
And again, if you come with the assistance of a trafficker, that doesn’t make your asylum application any less valid.
Thirdly, to remove more easily from the UK those with no right to be here.
To deliver against these objectives our New Plan for Immigration will make big changes, building a new system that is fair but firm.
Who are ‘those with no right to be here’? Because that’s changing. This is not just about illegal economic migrants, but a lot of people who until now would have been granted asylum.
The EU is refusing to co-operate with the government on these ‘removals’, because the Home Office would be deporting these asylum-seekers back to the EU! See ar article in the Independent.
HMG is tightening the rules so much that only a very small numbers of asylum-seekers will get indefinite leave to remain in future, compared to now. This opens up people to deportation where they would currently be permitted to stay.
We will continue to encourage asylum via safe and legal routes, strengthening our support by offering an enhanced integration package to those arriving in this manner and immediate indefinite leave to remain in the UK for resettled refugees.
We’d certainly like to see HMG make certain routes safer.
- supporting the closure of refugee camps in Calais which has led to an increase in dangerous journeys
- ‘pushing back’ boats seeking to reach the UK, leading people to take increasingly desperate measures, eg using traffickers
- increasingly dismantling the safe option of family reunion (the Guardian)
In 2019, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee warned that “a policy that focuses exclusively on closing borders will drive migrants to take more dangerous routes, and push them into the hands of criminal groups.”
And again, there’s no such thing as an illegal route to the UK to claim asylum, so how can HMG encourage ‘legal’ routes?
A key point here is that only those coming by ‘legal routes’ will be granted ‘immediate indefinite leave to remain in the UK’, and here it specifically says these will only be resettled refugees. Currently, resettled refugees get 5 years’ leave to remain and can then apply for indefinite leave to remain, which is usually granted. So while positive, it favours resettled refugees only and it makes little difference anyway.
At the same time, this plan will mark a step-change in Government’s posture as we toughen our stance against illegal entry and the criminals that endanger life by enabling it. We will take steps to discourage asylum claims via illegal routes, as other countries such as Denmark have recently succeeded in doing.
As we have seen, there is no such thing as an ‘illegal route’.
Denmark should not be held up as any kind of model of asylum policy:
- In January 2021, the prime minister announced a target of “zero asylum seekers”. The UNHCR responded by urging Denmark to change its refugee policy.
- Denmark has refused to participate in the voluntary distribution of refugees in the EU
- In 2020, only 432 refugees settled in Denmark (a country of almost 6 million people)
- In March 2021, Denmark became the first European country to strip Syrian refugees of their residency permits, saying they must return to Damascus because it is ‘safe’.
We will increase the maximum sentence for illegally entering the UK and introduce life sentences for those facilitating illegal entry.
The use of hotels to accommodate arrivals will end and we will bring forward plans to expand the Government’s asylum estate to accommodate and process asylum seekers including for return to a safe country.
Again, there is no such thing as illegal entry to the UK if you’re seeking asylum. So who will be punished, and why?
We welcome the end to the use of hotels. However, what will replace it? HMG has notoriously used very unsatisfactory former barracks. Shockingly, they’ve also recently suggested processing asylum-seekers on disused ferries or even off-shore in other territories (BBC). In 2020, Priti Patel was considering shifting asylum-seekers to Ascension Island – a remote UK territory in the Atlantic Ocean – or even Gibraltar.
Those who prevail with claims having entered illegally will receive a new temporary protection status rather than an automatic right to settle, will be regularly reassessed for removal from the UK, will have limited family reunion rights and will have no recourse to public funds except in cases of destitution.
Does HMG not understand international law?
Again, there is no such thing as an illegal route if you claim claim asylum on arrival. Yet the government continually states that they want to close down ‘illegal routes’ for asylum-seekers.
Just because someone (in sheer desperation) crosses the Channel by boat, or hides away on a lorry, doesn’t mean they don’t have a rightful claim to asylum. In fact, if HMG shuts down every route but resettlement, this is likely to exacerbate the numbers using such routes.
So why punish them by
- not considering their asylum claim in the normal way (with a view to granting leave to remain for 5 years)
- regularly reassessing them for removal (designed to cause immense stress)
- offering no recourse to public funds (which will lead to destitution)?
To tackle the practice of making multiple and sequential (often last minute and unmeritorious) claims and appeals which frequently frustrate removal from the UK, we will introduce a ‘one-stop’ process to require all rights-based claims to be brought and considered together in a single assessment upfront.
We will also introduce a robust approach to age assessment to ensure we safeguard against adults claiming to be children.
As previously mentioned, large numbers of legitimate asylum-seekers in the UK have no choice but to appeal, because the Home Office has a terrible record of refusing claims which should have been granted, and around half of those appeals result in asylum being granted. If the Home Office wanted greater efficiency and fewer appeals, it should look to its own processes and attitude.
So who will this ‘one-stop process’ deter − legitimate claimants?
Through these and many other measures in this package, we are determined to bring lasting change to the system so that it is fair to everyone.
An asylum system that helps the most vulnerable and is not openly gamed by economic migrants or exploited by people smugglers.
One that upholds our reputation as a country where criminality is not rewarded, but which is a haven for those in need.
If you’ve managed to read some or all of this right-hand column, you will probably have decided that these proposals aren’t fair − in fact, quite a lot of it doesn’t even make legal sense.
The home secretary continually talks about illegality and, here, criminality. However:
- It is not a crime to seek asylum
- It is not a crime to bypass other countries en route to the UK
- It is not a crime to get here by any means necessary, if the asylum is claimed on arrival.
Not all of this will happen quickly. We will need to stick to the course and see this New Plan for Immigration through.
But this Government promised to take a common-sense approach to controlling immigration – both legal and illegal.
And we will deliver on that promise.
Rt Hon Priti Patel, MPSecretary of State for the Home Department
The general strategy for charities and NGOs, in response to these proposals, is:
- FIRST − to complain about the suddenness and short duration of the consultation process
- SECOND – to pick apart the proposals and seek mitigation.
Will you take action with us?
Like never before, concerned groups and individuals must stand up and speak for refugees. If you’d like to add your voice, please protest the proposals.