28 July 2023

Constructive, controlled and compassionate – alternative approaches on asylum are available

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The Government has yet to identify any viable solutions to the challenges facing Britain’s asylum system, writes Sunder Katwala – yet its critics are setting out alternative proposals.

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“There is no alternative” has been the main argument put by supporters of the government’s illegal migration bill.  It is reasonable to expect critics of the government’s bill – from opposition political parties, faith leaders and civic society voices – to set out what they would do instead. Many of the government’s critics have begun to set out alternatives. A new report from the Refugee Council is the latest significant contribution to seek to answer the question.

In doing so, the new report reflects the common themes across several recent attempts to set out what an orderly, workable and humane asylum reform agenda might look like.  The common thread is an effort to blend control with compassion, rather than to accept that these are diametrically polarised principles. If the UK is to uphold the Refugee Convention in principle and practice, it should decide asylum claims on their merit, rather than refusing all claims indiscriminately, however strong, based on the means of arrival.  A shared theme is that the key to a controlled approach to asylum, rather than the current chaotic and dangerous Channel Crossings, will depend on deeper cooperation between the UK and its European neighbours, about routes to the UK and returns policies, so that the UK can take a fair share of asylum claims and refugees in a more orderly way.

Similar arguments can be found in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s programme outlined in the House of Lords, and several think-tank reports, including British Future’s own ‘Control and Compassion’ paper. The Labour Opposition’s five-point plan for stopping the boats consciously seeks to speak first to sceptical voters, while also making this conscious effort to blend control and compassion, prioritising the need for European and global cooperation in designing a workable alternative.

The Government’s new Act creates a Catch-22 barrier to almost anybody being able to claim asylum in Britain – because it seeks to ban all claims from those who arrive without prior permission, while providing very few ways to come legally.

The Government does say it will look to create legal routes – but only once it has stopped the boats first. This quixotic sequencing rules out the important possibility of making a humanitarian visa route one tool within a broader strategy to disrupt the trafficking model.

Yet there is a mirrored challenge for those proposing new humanitarian routes. Are these intended to disrupt irregular flows, or are they instead designed mainly to provide a further parallel flow for refugees to come safely to seek protection in Britain? The Refugee Council proposes a modest Humanitarian Visa pilot, capped at 10,000 places in the first year. This would be open to those who have left their own countries, and who have a strong claim for protection, with applications taken at British consulates in nearby states. This type of Humanitarian Visa scheme would be a useful innovation in UK asylum policy, providing a framework that could be adapted to future crisis responses. But the Refugee Council report does not suggest that a Humanitarian Visa route of this kind and scale would be likely to have any dramatic effect on Channel Crossings.

Attempting that would require a considerably larger Humanitarian Visa programme – specifically targeted, in the short-term, at those most likely to cross the Channel. It could prioritise countries with high asylum rates and make humanitarian visas initially available at UK Embassies in Europe, perhaps broadening that out later on if more control can be achieved in the Channel.

Across the Atlantic, The Biden administration has achieved a dramatic 70% drop in irregular arrivals on the Mexican border since May, by combining an expansive programme for legal migration, directly targeting the same cohorts, alongside a presumption of refusal for most of those who arrive irregularly. Over 1,000 visas a day are available through an App. The Biden plan would be the equivalent of a UK humanitarian visa quota of upwards of 60,000 places. Of course, the UK, Mexico and central America are not Britain, France and the European Union. An attempt to negotiate what a fair share of claims means would look different in Europe. But the lesson that managing irregular migration requires deeper inter-governmental cooperation on routes and returns is a valid one.

The UK Government’s approach – a de facto asylum ban – will prove impracticable in weeks.

Last year’s law tried to stay within the Refugee Convention, grudgingly admitting to the UK asylum system, eventually, those for whom there is no prospect of removal, though offering only temporary protection of three years. That centrepiece of last year’s bill has now been abolished – to avoid a creaking system having to make thousands of decisions twice, and because the new bill intends to make new asylum claims inadmissible forever.

The Government wants the Supreme Court to overturn the Court of Appeal’s verdict: that the Rwanda scheme is unlawful because Rwanda does not have trained decision-makers who know the basics of international asylum law. If the UK and Rwandan governments can overturn this – through assurances about what will happen in each case – it could enable a slow trickle of a couple of hundred removals.

The Rwanda case is largely a distraction. There have already been more arrivals in the last week than Rwanda could take in a year. The Refugee Council’s estimate is that there could be around a quarter of a million of people in limbo over the next three years.

So, whatever the courts decide about Rwanda, 99% of asylum seekers will not be removed to Africa. The proposal of permanent limbo will almost certainly be deemed unlawful by the UK courts too in the vast majority of cases, where the government has no prospect of removal. The real-world alternative would be to make asylum decisions – to find out who has a valid asylum claim and who does not, so that the majority who do can get on with their lives in Britain, and those whose asylum claim is not valid could be returned to their own countries where it is safe to do so.

This is the irony in the Government’s challenge to its critics about their lack of an alternative. For all of the political theatre of passing a new law to restrict and remove the right to claim asylum every year, it is the Government itself that has yet to identify any workable alternative to the hard work of repairing and reforming Britain’s system of asylum, both in principle and in practice.

British Future’s New ‘Control and compassion’ paper sets out constructive proposals for asylum reforms that seek to significantly reduce Channel crossings, cut the asylum backlog and use of hotel accommodation and break the deadlock with France to secure a new deal on security, routes and returns. You can download it here.

‘Towards a National Refugee Strategy: Our Vision for a Fair and Humane Asylum System’ is published by the Refugee Council and is available for download here

British Future’s latest activity on Twitter