The home secretary has not secured agreements with any European countries to return migrants deemed “inadmissible” under a proposed new system of asylum, which has been branded “inhumane” by humanitarian experts.
In what has been billed as the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades, Priti Patel has pledged to remove people who enter the UK illegally having travelled through a “safe country” in which they might have claimed asylum.
The Home Office’s policy document singles out “France and other EU countries” as safe countries through which asylum seekers pass on their way to the UK.
Under Brexit, the UK chose to leave an established system – known as the Dublin regulations – that helped to determine which country was responsible for examining an asylum application and facilitated returns. No successor has been announced.
Patel said: “We are speaking to EU member states right now and having negotiations.”
The proposals, which are to be put out to consultation, have been criticised by the UN Refugee Agency, the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, as well as immigration law experts and opposition politicians.
Asylum seekers who arrive in the UK via small boats or other illegal routes will be indefinitely liable for removal under the new proposals.
Patel also wants to change the law so she can keep “open” the option of offshore processing for asylum seekers. It comes after a series of leaks last year suggested that ministers were considering a number of offshore policies akin to those used in Australia. Both Gibraltar and the Isle of Man have rejected suggestions they could house sites.
Other measures proposed include:
Clarifying the standard on what qualifies as a “well-founded fear of persecution” and making it harder for people to be granted refugee status based on unsubstantiated claims.
Strict age assessment processes, with a national age assessment board to stop adult migrants pretending to be children.
Life sentences for people-smugglers and increasing the penalty for foreign national offenders who return to the UK in breach of a deportation order from six months’ imprisonment to five years.
Patel said thecrackdown on illegal entry will be balanced with expanded use of resettlement routes. Resettlement differs from asylum as it involves third-party organisations, such as the UN, processing claims in a third country, conferring refugee status on a person before they arrive in the UK.
However, it emerged that the government has scrapped quotas for the number of resettlement places in the UK. In 2019, the then home secretary Sajid Javid unveiled a global resettlement scheme with a target of offering about 5,000 resettlement places a year in the UK. The pandemic hit the rollout of the scheme.
Lord Dubs, the refugee campaigner and Labour peer who fled the Nazis as a child on the Kindertransport scheme, criticised the proposed reform, saying it could fuel criminality.
He tweeted: “The HO (Home Office) has closed the only two legal routes for refugee children stranded in Europe, including lone children and those with family here, to seek asylum in the UK. This is not ‘fair but firm’ – it keeps families apart and lacks compassion.
“Removing legal routes to safety doesn’t prevent criminality – it fuels it. The day the legal routes for refugee children seeking asylum here was closed was a field day for people traffickers and smugglers who exploit despair.”
Dubs was referring to the Dublin regulations and a separate scheme set up in his name to facilitate the transfer of unaccompanied asylum seeking children from the continent. Both are no longer in effect.
A spokesperson for 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: “Anyone seeking asylum should be able to claim in their intended destination or another safe country.”
He said while it was correct that the convention did not provide “an unfettered right to choose a country of asylum”, it did 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,” he added.
Mike Adamson, the chief executive of the British Red Cross: “We agree the asylum system needs reform, but this announcement takes the system backwards not forwards.
“People do not leave their homes in countries many miles away on a whim. Asylum is a life-saving last resort for some of the world’s most traumatised and persecuted people. These plans significantly reduce the protection available to people without addressing the fundamental weaknesses in our own system.
“We should not judge how worthy someone is of asylum by how they arrived here. The proposals effectively create an unfair two-tiered system, whereby someone’s case and the support they receive is judged on how they entered the country and not on their need for protection. This is inhumane.
Nick Thomas-Symonds , the shadow home secretary, said: “The Conservative party have run our immigration system for 11 years. Conservative failures have led to a processing system that’s appallingly slow, the Windrush scandal, the closing of safe and legal routes, no promised deal with France on boat crossings and a rise in the horrific crime of human trafficking. The Conservative approach has lacked both competence and compassion.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Our new plan for immigration is in line with international obligations including the refugee convention. To suggest otherwise is wrong.
“Our new system will ensure those with genuine need can get support, rather than favouring those who can afford to pay people smugglers or game the system.”