There is nothing but detention, unlife and the endless bureaucratic horror of non-status for the persecuted now

March 8, 2023 2:04 pm(Updated 2:05 pm)

Let’s be utterly clear about what happened this week. This is the worst piece of legislation we’ve seen on any aspect of immigration, by any government, or any individual home secretary in our lifetime. It is nothing less than the complete betrayal of Britain’s moral obligation to protect refugees and the dismantling of its practical processes for doing so.

Let’s also be utterly clear about what has been done. The asylum application process has been closed. A steel curtain has come down. There will be no protection here for the oppressed and the persecuted who arrive in boats. There will be nothing but detention, unlife and the endless bureaucratic horror of non-status. That sounds extreme and hysterical. It is simply an accurate description of the propositions put forward by the Government.

Stop The Boats, emblazoned on the grim new Downing Street lectern for Rishi Sunak’s statement yesterday, is his version of Donald Trump’s Build the Wall. And we can be under no illusions about what they have decided. They think their best chance now is to run against Labour on this as a wedge issue. They will use it to distract attention from the material collapse in people’s quality of life under their administration. But that is all this is: a slogan, with a mangled policy initiative underneath it which cannot satisfy the promise that it has made.

The reason why is simple. Asylum is ultimately about processing. Strip away the emotions and the rhetoric and that is the core of the issue. People will come here in boats, or in lorries, or whichever other way they can find. There are not enough safe routes, so they take the unsafe ones. The question is what we do about it.

What’s gone wrong recently is our processing capacity. It has fallen apart due to neglect and incompetence. We receive fewer asylum applications than Germany, France or Spain, but have a much worse backlog than any of them.

But instead of doing something about that, the Government is instead proposing that we simply stop processing any claims. That is what the Illegal Migration Bill entails: the closing down of our asylum process for boats. We will not even recognise new arrivals as asylum seekers, let alone refugees. We will not assess their claims. We will simply detain and remove them.

Except there is a problem: we won’t be able to do either of those things.

When asylum seekers arrive in the UK on a boat, they will be automatically detained for 28 days. They cannot make a bail claim or launch a judicial review, which is the usual method immigration lawyers use to free their client. After the 28 days are over, their detention continues, but they can now claim bail or the Home Secretary can release them. What she will try to do, however, is send them away. The bill puts a duty on the Home Secretary to remove them without considering the asylum claim.

Where will she send them to? There are three options. First, they can be transferred to Rwanda or another country on that model. Second, they can be sent to a European country they previously passed through. Or third, they can be returned to their country of origin. But there are problems with all these options.

The Rwanda model has not worked. Not a single person has been sent there and there are no agreements with other countries. Similarly, Britain does not have a returns agreement with other European states. So both those options are off the table.

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The third option is also largely closed. The UK can currently send people back to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran if it has assessed their claim and found it to be bogus. But according to the new bill, we are no longer going to assess claims. And that has a legal consequence. Article 32 of the Refugee Convention prohibits a state from returning an asylum seeker to their country of origin without assessing their claim and Suella Braverman – I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies – shows no sign of breaking the convention.

It’s absurd. We once used to send a lot of people back to Pakistan and India, two countries where claims were often rejected. Now that cannot take place. They will be stuck here. The numbers will keep creeping remorselessly up as more and more arrive and cannot leave.

There are three things which could save Sunak, three hints of potential sanity in an otherwise insane initiative. First, the policy could work as a deterrent. This is extremely unlikely. All the research suggests otherwise, as does the data on previous efforts, but it is possible. Second, he might secure Rwanda-style agreements prepared with other states, but he will need a lot of them. Third, he might have some kind of offer to the French for his meeting with Emmanuel Macron on Friday so that he can secure a returns strategy. But it is hard to see what it would be, given France takes many more asylum seekers than we do.

So the likely outcome is that it will fail. And what happens then?

Bad things. They will stuff people into a vast new detention camp network. But the capacity will never be large enough, so eventually, people will be released into the community, just as they are now as they wait for their claims to be processed.

But it will be different to before. Even with the asylum system in its current state of disarray, people were at least able to submit their claim and have it slowly processed. Now, Britain is refusing to even recognise those claims. It will deny people’s right to claim asylum. So they will be trapped in limbo. Unable to stay, unable to leave, deprived of any official status at all, a human sub-category.

In short: absolute chaos. Absolute moral degeneration. And absolute self-inflicted political harm by a government which has provided no solution to the problem, but instead a worsening of the very conditions and failures which gave rise to it in the first place.

We should be clear about what we’ve seen this week: shamefulness and incompetence on an unprecedented scale.

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