Tackling the crisis in the asylum system
Amid further deaths in the Channel, demands for a public inquiry into the shocking treatment of people seeking asylum at the Manston processing centre, and reports that dozens of asylum-seeking children have been kidnapped by criminal gangs from a Brighton hotel managed by the Home Office, Mark Davies of the Refugee Council calls on the government to take urgent action to resolve the crisis.
Recent weeks have seen more people take the desperately dangerous journey across the Channel to reach the UK. Last year 45,000 people made the decision to take the perilous crossing. Four people lost their lives – with four others missing – in the freezing waters in December alone.
The tragedy came just a few weeks after the Manston processing centre hit the headlines because of severe overcrowding and a scabies outbreak. Most of those at Manston would have crossed the Channel and many will have come from countries torn apart by conflict. Others will have escaped persecution.
There are many elements of our asylum system that are at best frustrating and at worst unacceptable. The government has said it will reduce the massive backlog of cases awaiting a decision, which is welcome. But its focus at the same time on the ‘stop the boats’ narrative is all wrong given the lack of workable schemes under which those on the boats could make a claim for asylum.
The lack of ‘safe routes’ – such as refugee visa schemes like that introduced for people fleeing the war in Ukraine – means that people from places like Syria and Sudan have no option but boats when it comes to seeking safety in the UK. Even the schemes set up for people fleeing the Taliban in Afghanistan are not working.
As for the backlog in asylum decisions, the Home Office only recently decided to invest in a decent IT system to deal with cases – previously it had been relying on cumbersome Excel files. The number of people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum claim has been rising year on year since 2010 and now stands at a staggering 140,000 – a consequence of long-term under-resourcing, insufficient caseworkers and poor systems and processes. We welcome the recent commitment from the prime minister to tackle much of this backlog by the end of 2023.
‘The government’s response is to propose ever more punitive and unworkable legislation’
What is needed is a much more joined up approach. While Manston is now operating at safer levels, thousands of people remain crammed in contingency hotels – three times as many in 2022 as 2021 – despite government promises to limit this. And without workable alternative safe routes, more people will arrive in the hotels having crossed the Channel on small boats.
The government’s response is to propose ever more punitive and unworkable legislation instead of developing safe ways for individuals fleeing for their lives to reach the UK and seek refuge here. We are very concerned to see the government preparing plans that effectively see us turning our backs on our seven-decade-old commitment to supporting refugees through the UN Refugee Convention.
While public attitudes in relation to asylum are more complex than it might appear from political and media narratives, refugees in the UK have to face misleading and often hateful rhetoric. The term ‘illegal’ is used liberally in public conversations about refugees – when there is nothing illegal about applying for asylum in any country. The Refugee Convention does not state that people have to seek asylum in the first country that they arrive in and we know that for many people, for reasons of family and language, the UK is the only country they think they will be safe in.
The vast majority of those who cross the Channel will go on to be confirmed as refugees. Yet the government is seeking to remove their right to a fair hearing on UK soil, not least by sending them to Rwanda. All the evidence shows that this plan will do nothing to stop people desperately crossing the Channel to seek safety in the UK, because it does nothing to address the reasons why they come. And it has already cost £140m.
‘The only way to prevent dangerous Channel crossings is to establish safe routes’
So, what is the solution to these problems? First, we know that the only way to prevent dangerous Channel crossings is to establish safe routes for people fleeing war and persecution to get to the UK. This includes making it easier for separated families to be reunited and developing humanitarian visas. With our international partners, we need to work on far more efficient and innovative approaches to providing safe routes for people seeking safety.
Second, as a charity with extensive experience of supporting refugees and people seeking asylum, we strongly believe a fair, effective and humane asylum is not only absolutely vital, but also eminently possible. An essential part of the solution is for the government to follow through on their promise to address the backlog of claims by the end of this year, as the chronic delays in the asylum system are causing utter misery to so many people who spend months and even years in limbo, living precariously and immensely uncertain about what their future holds.
The government must take action to address the ongoing systemic issues in the asylum system and prove it really is proud to support refugees. The Refugee Council and many of our partners stand ready to work collaboratively with ministers on implementing solutions with compassion and humanity.
When we think about what’s at stake here – the lives of vulnerable men, women and children fleeing brutal regimes and war-torn countries like Iran, Syria and Afghanistan – we start to truly understand why these vital changes are urgently needed.
Mark Davies is head of communications and campaigns at the Refugee Council