Why new Home Office proposals on asylum seekers are no cause for joy

Yesterday, The Times reported that refugees will be offered a path to immediate permanent residence in the UK (paywall). The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is proposing plans to provide legal routes to enter the UK and claim asylum which would lead to immediate permanent residence for successful applications. And when you read that headline, if you’re like me, you initially think, ‘oh, that sounds good and helpful’. But as you go on, it becomes clear that what is being proposed is neither good nor helpful.

So, it is good that those who are granted asylum will be given permanent right to remain, rather than the current situation that insists refugees must remain in Britain for 5 years before being able to apply for permanent leave to remain. The issue is that this will only be available to those who come by the new ‘legal route’ and all who apply by any other means will be immediately deported.

That may sound fair and reasonable at first blush, but let me just highlight a few difficulties with it. Even before we get into the specifics, there are issues with the use of the term ‘legal route’. It suggests that those currently coming into the country are doing so illegally. But it is well known that the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees states that asylum seekers will often have to travel by ‘irregular means’. The legal protocol for claiming asylum is to enter the country by whatever means you are able and then to present yourself to the authorities at the earliest opportunity to claim asylum. Depending on how you view this convention, there are either no legal means to enter to the country as an asylum seeker, but you become a recognised asylum seeker when you present yourself to the authorities, or any means of entering the country is legal if you are presenting yourself as an asylum seeker immediately. But the 1951 Convention is clear enough – entering by so-called ‘illegal routes’ is not, in point of fact, illegal if you are seeking asylum.

For this reason, many prefer to talk about ‘safe routes’. Whilst all means in might be legal if seeking asylum, it is evident that not all are advisable. Whilst we have to reckon with the reality of desperation that pushes people to float in tin cans across the sea and face the real prospect of death in the back of lorries or clinging on to aeroplane wheels, none of these routes are safe. It is equally right, as the Home Secretary is seeking to do, to clampdown on the people traffickers who prey on this desperation. The quickest and easiest way to kill of their disgusting business is to provide clear, easy to access, safe routes quashing the market in dangerous crossings. That should be the focus of any Home Office policy.

The particular proposals floated by Priti Patel, however, are anything but helpful. The Times report:

Plans for the “safe and legal resettlement route” are designed to encourage asylum seekers to apply through legal routes instead of making perilous journeys in boats or in the back of lorries.

Priority will be given to refugees in regions of conflict or instability rather than those who have already made it to “safe” EU countries. Applications would be submitted and processed overseas to avoid asylum seekers arriving in the UK only to be deported.

The government intends the new legal route to be accompanied by tough action to stop asylum seekers arriving in the UK illegally. The proposals will be published in a consultation paper on Wednesday.

Here we get into the fundamental issue. Imagine, for a moment, you are seeking to flee war torn Syria or Yemen. Under these new proposals, you are to apply from your literal bombsite to the UK for asylum. Quite how you would manage to get internet access or working snail mail under those circumstances has not been fleshed out by the Home Secretary, no doubt she has a plan to help. That submitted application will be processed, presumably over the course of several weeks or months. In the meantime, you must sit tight to await a decision. Had you made it to the UK with the threat of deportation if your case failed but a safe home in the meantime, that would be perfectly reasonable. But when bombs and bullets are flying around and you live under the threat of imminent death and torture, that seems less credible. Again, I’m sure the Home Secretary has managed to work out how to strike a deal with those in power in such unstable places that they won’t shoot, arrest or torture anyone while the UK process is underway. It doesn’t take much to see how in such a situation the plans are not tenable.

But matters get worse. Consider the case of my friends who fell foul of the Iranian government. Let me offer two examples. One friend, a publisher, had his premises raided while he was out and received a tip off that the authorities were after him for publishing a supposedly anti-Islamic booklet. He had to leave the country immediately. What chance did he have to sit down and fill in an application form? Even if he did manage to do that, what documents would he have access to that he could use to show credible evidence of the problem? The only evidence available was at his now raided workplace and his home to which the police had already gone. But under new plans, my friend – who came to the UK and eventually received his asylum (more on this later) – would not have been able to apply from abroad and would have been deported on entry at the UK border because he had technically entered by what would now be an illegal route, namely not having applied online before arrival.

Another of my friends had become a Christian and was on his way to his house church. In Iran, church attendance remains illegal. As he drove up to the church, he saw it surrounded by police and people being arrested. He escaped only because he happened to be late. He continued driving past the church and immediately sought to get out of the country, knowing that he was likely to be named as a member. What opportunity does my friend have, as a wanted man, to apply online and what evidence can he grab as he seeks to flee, knowing that the authorities will be at his home next? He too had his asylum granted on reaching the UK but under these proposals would almost certainly have been deported.

These issues are further compounded when we reckon with the fact that an asylum seeker who manages to apply from abroad, and present plentiful evidence of their plight, are likely to be immediately dismissed as not really in need of asylum. How dangerous can things be if you can sit tight, grab your documents and wait for a decision from your apparently desperate situation? On the other hand, if you need to get away quickly and arrive in the UK without any documents, these new proposals insist that no matter how credible your claim, you will be immediately deported. Which leads us to the conclusion that the Home Secretary is, in effect, cooking the system so that no asylum seekers can really be accepted under almost any circumstance.

Further, The Times report:

Patel is also planning to reduce the ability of migrants to use modern slavery laws and human rights challenges to avoid deportation.

Asylum seekers will have only one chance to appeal against a rejection. Home Office figures revealed eight in ten last-minute appeals against deportation were rejected by judges.

Again, that may seem fair enough. But at present, c. 50% of Home Office decisions are overturned on appeal and a significant number get overturned on second appeal too. Offering only one appeal would have caused problems for my first friend who was accepted on his second appeal of a fresh claim. Having been involved in lots of claims, the reason for appeals becomes apparent when you read judgements.

As a witness, one can only answer the questions put to you – it is not possible to simply say whatever you want. I have seen judgements that claim someone I am providing evidence for has not done any evangelism (for example) simply because I wasn’t asked the question what evangelism have I seen them do. I have seen judges insist Christian don’t want to do evangelism and it isn’t important to us (we are an evangelical church!) and thus it would be safe for people to return to their country and live secretly as a Christian. There are also frequent misunderstandings on the evidence given which only become clear when the judgement is received. These things can only be answered when we see the judgement and, on appeal, can explain why the judgement was mistaken on the evidence. Allowing only one appeal rids us of this opportunity because the only time church witnesses are called are not at the initial Home Office interview but in the first court tribunal appeal against the decision. Given this is where we frequently see mistakes in the judgement, removing the right to further appeals will lead to dismissals in cases that warrant their right to remain.

The proposals by Priti Patel are clear unworkable. They may be borne out of ignorance and possible stupidity over the reality of claiming asylum. But I struggle to believe the Home Secretary is that thick. I also cannot believe that charities and opposition members won’t point out these glaring problems with her proposals. The only other possibility, then, is that the Home Secretary knows exactly how unworkable these proposals are from an asylum point of view and is seeking to stop asylum seekers entering the UK altogether. If that is what she is doing, all the talk of ‘legal routes’ being opened up are really a mirage for blocking the most desperate and needy people from ever getting here.