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  • Danny Shaw

Asylum madness


The headline screamed from the Times: “Priti Patel plans for migrants to be held in offshore hub”.

Just 24 hours later, it was the Telegraph’s turn: “Priti Patel will overhaul Border Force with new supremo in charge of stopping Channel crossings and overhauling ‘broken’ asylum system”.


A few days after that, another development - this time reported by the Independent, among others: ”Priti Patel announces harsher sentences for migrants in bid to deter Channel crossings.”


All this of course has been the work of the Home Secretary’s spin kitchen, serving up tasty appetisers before the main meal, the Nationality and Borders Bill, which will be presented to Parliament today.


We are told, by the Home Office, that it’s a “landmark” piece of legislation that will “overhaul” the process for determining asylum claims.


“For too long, our broken asylum system has lined the pockets of the vile criminal gangs who cheat the system,” says Patel.


“This isn’t fair to the vulnerable people who need protection or the British public who pay for it. It’s time to act,” she says.


Think about that phrase, “time to act”. It’s as if the Government has only just realised there’s a problem. The Conservatives have been in power for 11 years - and they knew back then there was a problem.


In 2010, when they agreed a programme for Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, this is what they wrote.


“We will introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system… {we} will tackle human trafficking as a priority.


“We will explore new ways to improve the current asylum system to speed up the processing of applications.”


But under the Tories’ watch, and following a succession of further immigration pledges in the 2015, 2017 and 2019 manifestos, the asylum system has got demonstrably worse, not better.


Home Office figures, recently obtained by the Refugee Council under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that at the end of of 2020, 65,000 migrants in the UK were waiting for their asylum claims to be dealt with - nine times more than a decade earlier. The number awaiting an initial decision for more than 12 months had risen almost ten fold, to over 33,000.


The statistics cannot have come as a surprise to the Home Office. In November 2017, the Independent Inspector for Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, commented that it “struggles to keep on top of the volumes it receives”. He partly blamed the backlogs on a “large turnover in staff…lengthy staffing gaps and…high levels of inexperience”.


In a 52-page report, Bolt, who left his post this year, said the situation had been made worse by the department’s approach to recruitment. “The Home Office’s HR policies and practices…give managers little control over staff departures and are laborious and slow for those trying to backfill vacancies,” he wrote.

A year after the inspection, the failings of the UK's asylum system were vividly illustrated on the shores of Kent, with growing numbers of migrants making treacherous trips across the Channel in small boats. It became a source of acute embarrassment for the government. Sajid Javid, who was then Home Secretary, declared it a “major incident” and was appointed “gold commander”, meaning he had ultimate responsibility for what happened.

“People should not be taking this very dangerous journey,” Javid said, warning would-be asylum seekers that the Government would do “everything we can to make sure you are not successful because we need to break the link.”

They were tough words, which, like the other promises that had come before them, never translated into effective action. Priti Patel’s tenure at the Home Office has also been marked by desperate-sounding rhetoric and desperate-sounding ideas to stem the tide of Channel migrants. More than 2,000 arrived in June, a record monthly figure. Among the proposals apparently considered by her officials have been “floating walls” in the sea, wave machines and an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic.


The images from the Channel create a damaging impression that the government can’t grip the problem; it's the main reason asylum continues to occupy a disproportionate amount of ministerial time. And that is why there is now a Bill, with a clutch of eye-catching proposals.

In numerical terms, however, it is a manageable problem for which there are straightforward answers: out of all the immigrants to the UK in 2019, asylum seekers made up just 6% of the total. First, establish a network of safe routes for the most vulnerable refugees to come to the UK, with charities and support groups given funding to help the process.

Second, invest heavily in Home Office staffing and training, with good pay, conditions and supervision, so that asylum applications are swiftly and effectively handled, with expertise and care. That will reduce costs in the long-run and make it easier to remove those whose claims have been rejected.


And third, allow asylum seekers to work temporarily while their cases are being assessed, so they won't have to rely on state benefits and accommodation support.


Granted, the headlines are not as exciting as those in the papers, but there's a chance the outcomes will be better.


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