Priti Patel’s “Firm But Fair” Asylum System Ships Refugees Off to Remote Islands

Pierre-Henri Dumont, a French politician from Calais, responded to Priti Patel’s request for French interception of migrant boats attempting to cross the English Channel from Calais. Dumont stated, “Now every day they can see the English coast here in Calais. Do you really think controls, police forces, cameras, walls, will stop them from trying to cross? No, never”. He’s not wrong.

Britain has seen a spike in the number of illegal channel crossings by migrants in recent months. This September alone recorded 1,892 illegal migrants, more than the total number of recorded channel crossings in 2019. This spike may have been caused by a drop in freight transport during the pandemic as well as war, violence, and poverty in countries like Iran, Albania, and Iraq. 

Under international law, people have the right to seek asylum in the country they arrive in and are  “not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions.” However, according to an EU law, the Dublin III Regulation, member states are entitled to transfer asylum seekers back to the first country they entered.

Recently, Priti Patel announced plans to overhaul the UK asylum-seeking process which she deemed “fundamentally broken”. Patel plans to legislate new policies in order to deter those who plan to seek asylum using illegal routes. 

Patel wants the direct route from Calais to Dover to be made “unviable” and for boats to be returned to France, but, this is easier said than done as the French government have stated that they can not intervene in most circumstances. The Home Secretary attributed this to differing interpretations of international maritime law. The UN Refugee Agency calls it a dangerous conception since the deployment of large vessels to block small dinghies may “result in harmful and fatal incidents”.

Stephen Hale of Refugee Action called overhauling the UK asylum-seeking system a “positive step” as Patel finally “[realised] what [they’ve] been trying to tell her”. But alongside other human rights watch groups, Hale strongly advised against turning away asylum seekers and endorses pushing for “better support” for refugees, including “creating safe and legal routes for refugees to reach the UK”. 

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that Downing Street is the “driving force behind proposals to hold refugees in offshore detention centres” such as Ascension Island and St Helena and has suggested that the Foreign Office are considering sending asylum seekers to Moldova, Morocco or Papua New Guinea.

Reportedly, the Foreign Office has been asked by Boris Johnson for advice on the notion of an offshore asylum processing facility, not unlike Australian camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. This is a controversial move as human rights organizations have criticized the centres for their lack of facilities, hygiene, and space.

It is no mystery why Boris Johnson wants to ship asylum seekers as far away as possible. Perhaps it is best for him if they are out of sight and out of mind. 

To be clear, in no way is the idea of relocating and keeping refugees in offshore detention centres good, safe or viable. 

For one thing, practicality is an issue. Offshore processing centres mean high expenses and logistical complications, especially given the fact that the islands named by the Prime Minister are particularly remote. £200 million would be needed per construction of 1,000 beds and another £200 million would be needed to run the facility. The geographical proximity of the military airbase on Ascension Island, jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and the US, raises many legal and diplomatic problems. Morocco is no place for refugees since it has a serious lack of an asylum system, resources and inclination to hosting thousands of people. Moldova is in an ongoing struggle over Transnistria. Papua New Guinea’s already vulnerable public health system would crumble with the addition of asylum-seekers. The country would also need to disapply sections 77 and 78 of the Nationality Immigration and Asylum Act to justify the removal of asylum-seekers while their application for refugee status is still pending. These are just a few of the feasibility issues that would arise should the UK government pushes for offshore facilities for refugees. 

Did Boris Johnson think this through, or did he think this idea would make asylum-seekers who come to Britain other people’s problems? Did Priti Patel approve of this? Simply sending migrants away to some islands is not a magic trick that would immediately solve the immigration problem in the UK.

Amnesty UK’s director Kate Allen said: “It’s clear that either the Home Secretary does not understand her own asylum system or she is simply determined to shirk even more responsibility for providing protection to people”. 

Disregarding the feasibility of offshore processing centres, how would Parliament guarantee the quality of life and basic dignity of asylum-seekers? In November 2018, Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Bolt declared that state-run accommodation for asylum-seekers was unsuitable for living, especially for vulnerable groups like abuse and torture victims, pregnant mothers, and children. 43% of the housing Bolt checked needed “urgent” repairs and was “not fit for purpose” with insufficient ventilation, infestations of rodents, blocked drains, and the insensitive placement of traumatised groups with “older men with alcohol and drug problems”. The abhorrent conditions in local accommodation evoke disturbing images that could very well be transferred to the offshore camps if the government goes forth with it’s plans.

The Home Secretary emphasised deterring illegal migrants as part of her reform of the asylum-seeking system, yet, Parliament, numerous human rights groups and even French authorities have stated that instead, the Home Office should legalise overseas asylum applications that could be dealt with in British embassies, thus making it safer, more accessible and most importantly to Patel, legal, for people who merely hope for a better life in the UK.

Patel claimed the new system would be “firm but fair”, but how could turning boats away in the English Channel be fair for people who are fleeing tyranny, torture and war in peril, and do not have the resources, capital, time or freedom to do so in a legal manner? While Britain plans to make the escape route for helpless people “unviable” and tuck asylum-seekers away on remote islands, its European neighbours, including poorer and less stable countries, carry on providing sanctuary for our fellow people.

The Government should abandon its visceral and incendiary rhetoric on this issue, and instead offer global leadership. Hopefully this revamp of the asylum system provides greater support and compassion for migrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal, and that this era of Conservative leadership goes down in British history as the administration who forged the metamorphosis of an improved immigration system.

Clarissa Leung

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons